- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

CEDAR KEY, Fla. (AP) — More than 20,000 people along Florida’s Gulf Coast were ordered to clear out yesterday as Alberto — the first tropical storm of the new hurricane season — unexpectedly intensified and threatened to come ashore as a hurricane.

Forecasters posted a hurricane warning for the Gulf Coast and a tropical storm warning from north of Daytona Beach to the Georgia-South Carolina line, saying the storm could hit this morning. Gov. Jeb Bush signed a declaration of emergency, allowing him to call up the National Guard and put laws against price gouging in place.

“We’re talking about powerful forces of nature,” Mr. Bush said. “People need to take this very seriously.”

If Alberto came ashore as a hurricane, it would be the earliest hurricane in 40 years to hit the United States, according to the National Hurricane Center. The earliest on record is Alma, which in 1966 hit the Florida Panhandle on June 9 — the ninth day of the hurricane season.

The tropical depression that produced Alberto formed on Saturday, nine days after the June 1 start of the season. Forecasters over the weekend were confident it would not become a hurricane.

But the storm’s winds accelerated with startling speed from 50 mph to 70 mph in just three hours yesterday.

“We were surprised, but we’ve been surprised before,” hurricane specialist Richard Pasch said. “The center in disorganized storms can re-form and jump.”

Forecasters said Alberto could probably become only a weak Category 1 hurricane, meaning winds of 74 mph to 95 mph, because the warm water from which hurricanes draw their strength is not particularly deep in the area.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Alberto was centered about 95 miles south-southeast of Apalachicola and about 105 miles west-southwest of Cedar Key, and was moving northeast near 10 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. Its top sustained winds remained at 70 mph.

Evacuation orders were posted for people in mobile homes or low-lying areas in at least five coastal counties stretching more than 100 miles. Those ordered evacuated included about 21,000 residents of Citrus, Levy and Taylor counties.

Alberto was expected to blow ashore anywhere from north of Tampa to the Panhandle. Forecasters said it could bring 4 to 10 inches of rain to central Florida and southeastern Georgia.

In Florida, homeowners stocked up on chain saws, plywood and other emergency supplies. Workers at a marina in St. Petersburg said they planned to work through the night securing more than 600 boats against the wind and waves.

“This is a little earlier that I expected,” said marina manager Walter Miller. “But we’ve had a bad couple of years, so it’s not entirely unexpected.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said yesterday it had evacuation buses and emergency supplies standing by, but state officials in the affected areas had not asked for immediate help.


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