June 13, 2006

Florida hurricane warning called off

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Alberto
brought rain, some sharp winds and foot-deep floods to
northwest Florida on Tuesday, but U.S. forecasters said it no
longer threatened to become the first hurricane of 2006.

The storm's center was nearing land at 11 a.m. EDT and was
about 50 miles southeast of the Florida state capital
Tallahassee and just offshore from Keaton Beach on the Gulf

But winds and rains lashed Florida well ahead of landfall,
bringing an unwelcome reminder that the 2006 hurricane season
had begun and that it could, like 2005, spawn monster storms
like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans.

Officials had ordered up to 21,000 residents to evacuate
barrier islands, flood plains and trailer parks and the main
threat from Alberto appeared to be its storm surge, an
unusually high tide that flooded coastal roads and buildings.

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 50 mph (85 kph).
On Monday the winds had almost reaching the 74 mph (119 kph)
threshold at which tropical storms become hurricanes. A
hurricane warning in effect for parts of the Gulf Coast was

State officials said 21,000 customers had lost power and
fewer than 300 people had taken refuge in emergency shelters.

The hurricane center had predicted storm surge flooding of
up to 9 feet above normal tide levels and seawater sloshed into
low-lying coastal communities.

"We're getting reports of flooding. They're saying it's
about a foot of water over the roads by now," said Scott
Garner, division chief for Dixie County emergency management.

The surge was compounded by the full-moon tide, and some
houses and businesses were damaged, Levy County Emergency
Management Director Mark Johnson said.

"I don't think it's severe. I think it's houses that are
kind of used to getting water in them," Johnson said.

Emergency workers planned to wait until after the afternoon
high tide to assess the damage, he said.

But so far, he said, "We did quite well. No injuries, no
loss of life, so far so good on the structural damage."


Unwilling to take any chances after Katrina, Florida Gov.
Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency as Alberto approached.

He appeared more relaxed on Tuesday, as officials noted
that Alberto was having a beneficial effect in dousing some of
the 168 wildfires across the state.

"I hope all the storms that hit here this year are tropical
storms and not hurricanes but I can assure you that if a
stronger storm comes our way we have a great team in place,"
Bush told reporters.

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
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.

(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton)