June 13, 2006

Tropical Storm Alberto weakens as it nears Florida

By Robert Green

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Alberto
weakened as it crept slowly toward Florida's coast on Tuesday,
although forecasters said it could still become the year's
first hurricane before reaching shore.

The storm's center was still over the Gulf of Mexico at 2
a.m. EDT (0600 GMT), but heavy winds and rains were lashing
Florida, where officials had ordered thousands of residents to
evacuate barrier islands, flood plains and trailer parks.

At 2 a.m., Alberto's center was about 85 miles
west-southwest of Cedar Key, on Florida's west coast, and
moving northeast near 10 miles per hour (17 kph), the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said. Its maximum sustained winds had
slowed to near 65 mph (105 kph), below the 74 mph (119 kph)
threshold at which tropical storms become hurricanes.

But forecasters said it could still strengthen before its
center moved over Florida late Tuesday morning and a hurricane
warning remained in effect for much of the state's west coast.

"This is still strong enough to cause some significant
damage," U.S. National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield
told CNN. "We don't want to overdo this but we sure don't want
to underdo it either."

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency even
though the most likely area of landfall was sparsely populated
swampland and farming country, with no big cities like New
Orleans, devastated in August by Hurricane Katrina.

Florida officials said 26 shelters in 16 counties had been
opened for evacuees.

"This is a serious storm and we are taking it seriously,"
Bush said. "We're not dealing with large numbers of people. But
given the storm surge we anticipate and given the velocity of
these winds, I hope people aren't being defiant."


Around 21,000 people were affected by evacuation orders.
The emergency director in one rural area, Citrus County, went
door to door to urge people to seek higher ground.

Energy traders said Alberto's path should take it too far
east to cause disruptions or damage to offshore oil and gas
platforms battered during last year's record-breaking Atlantic
hurricane season. There were 28 tropical storms in the
June-November 2005 season, of which 15 became hurricanes.

Experts have forecast another busier-than-average storm
year. Alberto's formation less than two weeks after the June 1
start of the season seemed to underscore the predictions.

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 Katrina -- the most costly and one of the deadliest
U.S. natural disasters.

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

Alberto formed on Sunday off Cuba, where there was some
minor flooding but no deaths.

(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee and
Patricia Zengerle in Washington)