June 13, 2006

Alberto unlikely to become hurricane

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Alberto
brought heavy rains, some sharp winds and pounding waves to a
largely deserted northwest Florida coastline on Tuesday, but
U.S. forecasters said its chances of becoming the first
hurricane of 2006 had faded.

The storm's center was still over the Gulf of Mexico at 8
a.m. EDT, about 50 miles east-southeast of Apalachicola, but
winds and rains were already lashing Florida's Gulf Coast.
Officials ordered thousands of residents to evacuate barrier
islands, flood plains and trailer parks.

The storm was moving northeast at a speed of nearly 9 miles
per hour (15 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Its maximum sustained winds had slowed to near 65 mph (100
kph), below the 74 mph (119 kph) threshold at which tropical
storms become hurricanes. State officials said 16,000
households or customers had lost power and fewer than 300
people had taken refuge in emergency shelters.

A hurricane warning remained in effect for parts of the
Gulf Coast. National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield
said the storm's main threat was the storm surge as it came
ashore and the tornadoes it could spawn in Florida and Georgia
and as far north as southeastern Virginia.

The hurricane center said 4-8 inches of rain were possible
through Tuesday across parts of Florida and Georgia. Storm
surge flooding up to 9 feet above normal tide levels was likely
across parts of the Gulf Coast.

"The good news here is that it did not become a hurricane,"
Mayfield told CNN, adding there was unlikely to be extensive
wind damage.

Unwilling to take any chances after last year's Hurricane
Katrina which devastated New Orleans, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
declared a state of emergency on Monday.

The expected area of landfall, however, was a sparsely
populated swampland and farm country, with no big cities.


Mayfield said Florida appeared to have dodged a bullet with
the first threat of the 2006 Atlantic storm season.

"This is just the middle of June as you know, we've got a
long way to go, another five-and-a-half months of hurricane
season and the peak of the season really doesn't start until
the middle of August," he said.

Alberto's path took it too far east to disrupt offshore oil
and gas platforms battered during last year's record-breaking
season. There were 28 tropical storms in 2005, of which 15
became hurricanes.

Experts have forecast another busier-than-average storm
year, with up to 17 tropical storms. Alberto's formation less
than two weeks after the June 1 start of the six-month season
seemed to underscore the predictions.

Hurricane experts say the Atlantic has moved into a
decades-long period of heightened hurricane activity, which
could have serious implications for the energy and insurance
industries, and also for people living on the hundreds of miles
(km) of vulnerable U.S. coastline.

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

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