June 13, 2006

Alberto makes soggy Florida landfall

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - A weakened Tropical Storm
Alberto, the first cyclone of what is expected to be a busy
2006 Atlantic hurricane season, swamped coastal towns on
Tuesday as it splashed ashore in northwest Florida.

An unwelcome reminder that the season had begun and that it
could spawn monster storms like 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which
devastated New Orleans, Alberto had threatened to become the
year's first hurricane over warm Gulf of Mexico waters.

But it came ashore as a tropical storm near Adams Beach, 50
miles southeast of the Florida state capital, Tallahassee,
bringing heavy rain and some sharp winds to a sparsely
populated, flood-prone area.

The main threat appeared to be an up to 9 foot storm surge,
an unusually high tide that flooded coastal roads and
buildings, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

"We're still not out of the woods yet," said Jessica
Lambert, spokeswoman for the Board of County Commissioners in a
flood-hit corner of Citrus County.

Just before landfall, Alberto's maximum sustained winds had
slowed to 50 miles per hour (85 km per hour), after nearly
reaching the 74 mph (119 kph) threshold at which tropical
storms become hurricanes. By 2 p.m. EDT, it was well inland and
its winds had fallen to 40 mph (65 kph).

State officials said there were no reports of deaths. They
said 21,000 households or customers had lost power and fewer
than 300 people had taken refuge in emergency shelters -- low
numbers for a state that has been hit by eight hurricanes in
the last two years.

The hurricane center said 4-8 inches of rain were possible
through Tuesday across Florida and Georgia.

"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 emergency management in Dixie

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 on Monday.

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.

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.

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 for people living on the hundreds of miles (km)
of vulnerable U.S. coastline.

Karen Clark, the chief executive of one catastrophe-loss
forecaster, AIR Worldwide, said her Boston-based modeling group
foresaw a major hurricane plowing into Miami one day that would
cost insurers $130 billion.

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 U.S. President
George W. Bush's popularity because of a fumbled emergency

Alberto formed on Sunday off Cuba.

(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton and Michael Christie
in Miami)