Tropical Storm Alberto is less than advertised |

Tropical Storm Alberto is less than advertised

Phil Davis

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – The first tropical storm of the hurricane season was less than advertised Tuesday, bringing rain, gusty winds and some thigh-high street flooding to Florida’s Gulf Coast without blowing up into the hurricane forecasters feared.There were no immediate reports of any serious injuries or deaths.But emergency planners said the preparations were not in vain: Alberto allowed them to hold a not-so-dry run of their disaster plans. And the rains snuffed out some of the wildfires that have bedeviled parched central Florida over the past few months.”This is not much worse, if any worse, than a summer squall. I just hope the next time we get another one, they won’t say nothing’s going to happen because nothing happened this time,” said Jerry Cawthon, a resident of Keaton Beach.The storm’s center came ashore around noon near Adams Beach, about 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee. Its winds were 40 mph, down from 65 mph in the morning and well below the 74 mph hurricane threshold that forecasters thought it might cross.The prospect of a hurricane hitting the state less than two weeks into the season threw a scare into Florida, and more than 20,000 were ordered evacuated as Alberto closed in.If Alberto had struck as a hurricane, it would be have been an alarming start to the season, which began June 1. No hurricane has hit the United States this early in the hurricane season in 40 years.Tampa and other areas had gotten 4 to 6 inches of rain by daybreak Tuesday, and forecasters said total rainfall could reach 10 inches in central Florida and southeastern Georgia over the next few days.In Crystal River, water was thigh high in the heart of the town. David Garrick, owner of a restaurant and eight apartments along the bay, nervously paced the parking lot next to the apartments as water inched toward their doorsteps.”We’re tempting fate right now, but there’s not much you can do. You can’t sandbag because it comes in under the floor,” he said.Forecasters said the northeastern coast of Florida and the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas would be vulnerable to tornadoes for up to several days until Alberto cleared the area.But National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said that overall, Alberto “shouldn’t be life-threatening by any means, as long as people are careful, and especially surfers.”The only road in and out of Cedar Key for the island’s 940 residents, was briefly closed because of flooding. But Cedar Key City Commissioner Pat O’Neal said, “We dodged a bullet.”A total of about 21,000 homes and businesses lost power during the storm. All but 4,300 customers had electricity restored by early evening.It was unclear how many of those ordered to evacuate their homes actually left.Levy County sheriff’s Capt. Chuck Bastak said residents of Cedar Key in the gulf were “gun shy” about evacuating after a no-name storm of 1993 beat up the island and authorities were slow to let them return to their homes.”They’re kind of hard-core,” Bastak said of some longtime island residents. “It would take an act of Congress, God and weather to get them out of there.”Alberto did come with some benefits: Federal, state and local officials said the storm gave them real-world practice on the lessons learned from the slow response to some of last year’s hurricanes. Hurricane specialists said they ran into a few computer glitches but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by the next storm.”You can train all you want, but nothing beats the real deal,” said state Emergency Management spokesman Mike Stone.”The evacuations went as planned,” Gov. Jeb Bush said. “I can assure you that if a stronger storm comes our way, that we have a great team.”Alberto’s rainfall should also help the state battle wildfires that have blazed in different areas over the past two months, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said. Eighteen brush fires were extinguished by Tuesday’s rain, but about 150 were still active, Bronson said.At 11 p.m. EDT, Alberto, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph, was located 55 miles southwest of Statesboro, Ga., moving northeast at about 16 mph. Tropical storm warnings were discontinued for Florida’s Big Bend, where the Florida Peninsula juts into the Gulf of Mexico, and the state’s northern Atlantic Coast. A tropical storm warning remained in effect for parts of Georgia and South Carolina. A flood watch was issued for South Carolina, where more than 5 inches of rain was possible.Scientists have predicted an active 2006 storm season, with 16 named storms, six of them major hurricanes. Last year’s hurricane season was the most destructive on record and the busiest in 154 years of storm tracking, with a record 28 named storms and a record 15 hurricanes.—Associated Press Writers Mitch Stacy in Cedar Key, Brendan Farrington in Steinhatchee, Fla., David Royse in Tallahassee, Fla., and Michelle Spitzer and Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.—On the Net:National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.govVail, Colorado

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