First storm dubbed Alberto

From Staff, Wire reports

Orlando, Florida

An unidentified family takes cover as they make their way through a mall parking lot in Orlando, Fla.,Sunday as Tropical Storm Alberto caused rains in the area. Alberto is the first named storm of the 2006 hurricane season. Photo: AP

The weather system that has now been dubbed Tropical Storm Alberto left the Cayman Islands soaked and forced the postponement of Saturday’s Queen’s Birthday parade.

Before the system left the Caribbean and ventured into the Gulf of Mexico it dumped 8.7 inches of rain on Grand Cayman from Wednesday to Monday morning.

Monday morning Tropical Storm Alberto had maximum sustained wind near 50 mph but was not likely to grow into a hurricane, the National Hurricane Center said. There were no major reports of damage.

At 5am Monday Alberto was centered about 275 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida. It was moving north-northeast at about 8 mph and was expected to make landfall tonight, forecasters said.

Forecasters said gusts were expected to reach 55 mph to 65 mph right before landfall.

‘It won’t be quite hurricane strength,” said Ron Goodman, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center. “Things can change, but right now it’s not expected to be a hurricane.”

Forecasters said that up to 30 inches of rain could fall over some parts of Cuba, creating a threat of flash floods and mudslides, and that 5 to 10 inches could fall over the Florida peninsula through Tuesday. Over the Florida Keys, between 3 to 5 inches of rainfall were possible.

A tropical storm warning was issued for most of Florida’s west coast, from Englewood to Indian Pass, meaning tropical storm conditions were expected there within the next 24 hours. A tropical storm watch remains in effect from south of Englewood to Bonita Beach.

Residents of the state’s Gulf Coast were watching the storm, including Patricia Haberland, whose back porch was flooded by 12 inches of rain in March. She put a few valuables in plastic bins this weekend just to be on the safe side.

“Other than that, we’re carrying on as usual, going to work, going to church,” said Haberland, 52. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to have a major impact on our area.”

The prospect of a wet storm without hurricane-force wind was welcomed by firefighters who have been battling wildfires for six weeks on Florida’s east coast.

“A good soaking rain would do a lot to help stop the fires in our area,” said Pat Kuehn, a spokeswoman for Volusia County Fire Services. “It has been a hard fire season. We’ve had several fires a week here.”

The storm was not expected to cross the Keys, but some tourists were not taking any chances on the low-lying islands.

“I had a bunch of people check out this morning,” said Nikki LaMarca, front desk manager at Courtney’s Place in Key West. “It’s amazing. People are actually leaving.”

The tropical depression that produced Alberto formed Saturday, nine days after the official start of the hurricane season, in the northwest Caribbean, which can produce typically weak storms that follow a similar track this time of year, forecasters said.

“They can also meander in the Gulf for awhile, and we’ve seen some dissipate before reaching any land areas,” said hurricane specialist Richard Pasch.

Scientists say the 2006 season could produce as many as 16 named storms, six of them major hurricanes.

Last year’s hurricane season was the most destructive on record. Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi and was blamed for more than 1,570 deaths among Louisiana residents alone.

It also was the busiest in 154 years of storm tracking, with a records 28 named storms and a record 15 hurricanes. Meteorologists used up their list of 21 proper names – beginning with Arlene and ending with Wilma – and had to use the Greek alphabet to name storms for the first time.

This year, however, meteorologists have said the Atlantic is not as warm as it was at this time in 2005, meaning potential storms would have less of the energy needed to develop into hurricanes.

Last year’s first named storm was Tropical Storm Arlene, which formed June 9 and made landfall just west of Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle.

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