June 12, 2006

Florida under hurricane warning as Alberto lurks

By Robert Green

ST PETERSBURG, Florida (Reuters) - U.S. forecasters warned
on Monday that Tropical Storm Alberto could become the first
hurricane of 2006 as it strengthened ominously over the warm
waters of the Gulf of Mexico and barreled toward northwest

The storm was about 190 miles south-southwest of
Apalachicola, in Florida's panhandle, at 11 a.m. EDT, according
to the U.S. National Hurricane Center

"Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed
to completion," the U.S. forecasters in Miami said.

"Alberto has the potential to become a hurricane within the
next 24 hours," the forecasters added, fueling a sense of
foreboding in a state hit by eight hurricanes in the last two
years, including Katrina, which went on to devastate New

"This is a serious storm and we are taking it seriously,"
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters in Tallahassee as the
state government declared a state of emergency and activated
its emergency response system.

Energy traders said the path of the storm should take it
too far east to cause any major disruptions or damage to
offshore oil and gas production, and the most likely area of
landfall was not densely populated.

Alberto's maximum sustained winds had increased to near 70
miles per hour (110 km per hour), and further strengthening was
possible, the hurricane center said. Tropical storms become
hurricanes once their maximum sustained winds reach 74 mph (119

Alberto was predicted to make landfall north of Florida's
heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area on Tuesday, cross
the state, and then enter the Atlantic.

Tides were rising and rain was starting to fall on
Florida's west coast. Forecasters said 4-8 inches of rain were
possible through Tuesday across parts of Florida and Georgia.

Storm surge flooding up to 10 feet above normal tide levels
was expected across much of the Gulf Coast, including what Gov.
Bush said were "a lot of low lying areas."


Much of the U.S. East Coast had been girding for the June 1
start of the hurricane season, and while tropical storms pose
little threat to developed countries, anxieties have been
heightened following the flooding of New Orleans last year by
Hurricane Katrina -- the most costly and one of the deadliest
natural disasters in U.S. history.

More than 1,300 people were killed by Katrina and much of
the U.S. Gulf Coast is still recovering.

The hurricane center said Alberto, moving north-northeast
near 7 mph (11 kph), was expected to hold to the same general
path over the next 24 hours.

The storm formed on Sunday off Cuba, and civil defense
officials there reported that 26,000 people had evacuated
low-lying areas in the Caribbean island's westernmost province
of Pinar del Rio, where 16 to 20 inches of rain fell in 24

There was some minor flooding, but no deaths, injuries or
significant damage to housing or agriculture.

(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee)