- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. (AP) — The first tropical storm of the hurricane season was less than advertised yesterday, bringing rain, gusty winds and some thigh-high street flooding to Florida’s Gulf Coast without blowing up into the hurricane forecasters feared.

No serious injuries or deaths were reported.

Emergency planners said the preparations were not in vain: Alberto allowed them to hold a not-so-dry run of their disaster plans, and the rains should help douse the wildfires that have bedeviled parched Central Florida over the past few months.

“This is not much worse, if any worse, than a summer squall. I just hope the next time we get another one, they won’t say nothing’s going to happen because nothing happened this time,” said Jerry Cawthon, a resident of Keaton Beach.

The storm’s center came ashore about noon near Adams Beach, about 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee. Its winds were 40 mph, down from 65 mph in the morning and well below the 74 mph hurricane threshold that forecasters thought it might cross.

The prospect of a hurricane hitting the state less than two weeks into the season threw a scare into Florida, and more than 20,000 were ordered evacuated as Alberto closed in.

If Alberto had struck as a hurricane, it would be have been an alarming start to the season, which began June 1. No hurricane has hit the United States this early in the season in 40 years.

Tampa and other areas received 4 to 6 inches of rain by daybreak yesterday, and forecasters said total rainfall could reach 10 inches in Central Florida and southeastern Georgia over the next few days.

In Crystal River, water was thigh-high in the heart of the town. David Garrick, owner of a restaurant and eight apartments along the bay, nervously paced the parking lot next to the apartments as water inched toward their doorsteps.

“We’re tempting fate right now, but there’s not much you can do. You can’t sandbag because it comes in under the floor,” he said.

Forecasters said the northeastern coast of Florida and the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas would be vulnerable to tornadoes for up to several days until Alberto clears the area.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for low-lying areas in four counties.

National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said that overall, Alberto “shouldn’t be life-threatening by any means, as long as people are careful, and especially surfers.”

About 21,000 homes and businesses lost power during the storm, but about half regained electricity by midafternoon.

Scientists have predicted an active 2006 storm season, with 16 named storms, six of them major hurricanes. Last year’s hurricane season was the most destructive on record and the busiest in 154 years of storm tracking, with a record 28 named storms and a record 15 hurricanes.

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