June 14, 2006

Alberto Weakens After Drenching Florida

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- Alberto, the first cyclone of what is expected to be a busy 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, weakened to a tropical depression on Wednesday after swamping Florida towns overnight.

A tropical storm when it splashed ashore in northwest Florida, Alberto crossed the state on a path to Georgia and South Carolina. By 5 a.m. (0900 GMT Wednesday), the storm was over South Carolina and its winds had fallen to 35 mph (56 kph). It was moving to the northeast at 21 mph (34 kph) and could gain speed over the next 24 hours.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm could drop 2-4 inches of rain in North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, and isolated tornadoes were possible in the Carolinas.

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

Alberto 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.

"I would characterize Alberto as a fickle storm," state meteorologist Ben Nelson said.

Alberto pushed a 9-foot (3-meter) wall of water from the Gulf of Mexico up over the Florida coast, a storm surge compounded by high tides that accompanied the full moon.

Coastal roads and parking lots were swamped and some houses and businesses were damaged.

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

Just before landfall, Alberto's maximum sustained winds had slowed to 50 miles per hour (85 km per hour), after nearly reaching hurricane strength of 74 mph (119 kph).

Florida emergency officials said no deaths were reported. About 11,000 electrical customers were without power and 4,300 households lacked telephone services, but utilities were being restored quickly, they said.


Alberto dropped more than 5 inches of rain on parts of Florida, extinguishing wildfires that had burned for weeks during a dry spring.

The downpours brought relief to Florida's drought-plagued orange groves, but agricultural officials were worried about the state's saltwater clam industry, which is sensitive to freshwater flooding.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency on Monday but appeared more relaxed on Tuesday, as evacuation orders were lifted.

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.

Meteorologists say the Atlantic has moved into a decades-long period of heightened hurricane activity, with potentially serious implications for the energy and insurance industries, and for people living on the hundreds of miles (kilometers) of vulnerable U.S. coastline.

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