June 12, 2006

Florida under hurricane warning as Alberto revs up

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 took aim at northwest Florida.

The storm was about 155 miles south of Apalachicola, in
Florida's panhandle, at 2 p.m. EDT, according to a bulletin
from the U.S. National Hurricane Center, and mandatory
evacuation orders were issued for residents in low-lying and
coastal areas.

"Alberto has the potential to become a hurricane within the
next 24 hours," the Miami-based hurricane center said, 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 Orleans.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency and the
state activated its emergency response system, even though the
most likely area of landfall was not densely populated.

"This is a serious storm and we are taking it seriously,"
Bush said. "Mandatory evacuation orders have already begun," he
said at a later media conference.

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 platforms which were battered during 2005,
a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season that witnessed 28
tropical storms, of which 15 became hurricanes.

Weather experts have forecast a busier-than-average season
this year too as climatic conditions in the Atlantic remain
favorable for hurricanes, and Alberto's formation less than two
weeks after the June 1 official start of the season seemed to
underscore the predictions.


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 winds reach 74 mph (119 kph).

The storm was moving northeastward near 10 mph (16 kph) and
was expected to come ashore north of the heavily populated
Tampa-St. Petersburg area early on Tuesday, cross the state,
and then enter the Atlantic where it would disperse.

Tides were rising and rain began to pelt down on Florida's
west coast. The hurricane center 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.

While tropical storms pose little threat to developed
countries, anxieties in U.S. coastal areas 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.

Katrina killed more than 1,300 people, caused $80 billion
in damage, helped sink President George W. Bush's popularity
because of the fumbled federal emergency response, left tens of
thousands homeless and helped lift oil prices to record highs.

Much of the U.S. Gulf Coast is still recovering.

Alberto formed on Sunday off Cuba, and 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 hours.

There was some minor flooding, but no deaths.

The cause of the hurricane activity of the past two years
is the subject of fierce debate in the United States.

Hurricane experts believe the Atlantic is in a decades-long
period of naturally heightened hurricane activity. But
climatologists say there are indications that human-caused
greenhouse gases may be increasing the intensity of hurricanes,
which draw energy from warm water.

(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee)