Monday, August 17, 2009

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A tropical storm that lost steam after blowing ashore Monday dumped rain on Florida and Alabama, while the first hurricane of this year’s Atlantic season picked up strength over open waters on a path toward Bermuda.

Hurricane Bill was expected to become a major hurricane in the next couple of days, with winds topping 110 mph. Hours after becoming a hurricane Monday, Bill’s top wind speed jumped to 90 mph.

Along the Florida Panhandle, a man in his mid-20s died after being pulled from surf as Claudette approached Sunday. In Bay County, authorities searched for another man whose boat ran aground Sunday night, though they believe he eventually made it ashore. Neither man’s identity was released.

The weakening storm wasn’t expected to cause significant flooding or wind damage as it moved farther inland. The first named storm to hit the U.S. mainland this year was downgraded to a tropical depression with winds of 30 mph hours after it made landfall near Fort Walton Beach.

RELATED STORY: Tropical Storm Claudette hits Florida

Parts of the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama were expected to receive rainfall of 2 to 4 inches, and Claudette was headed across Alabama toward northeastern Mississippi.

Over the Atlantic, Hurricane Bill quickly strengthened, and forecasters think it could be a major hurricane by Wednesday.

“We do believe (Bill) could become a major hurricane during the next couple of days,” said Daniel Brown, a hurricane specialist for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Bill was centered about 1,080 miles east of the Lesser Antilles and moving west-northwest at 16 mph at 11 a.m. EDT. The five-day forecast shows the storm passing northeast of Puerto Rico and heading toward Bermuda, though a storm’s track is difficult to accurately predict several days in advance.

On the Gulf Coast, the center of Claudette was about 80 miles southwest of Montgomery, Ala., at 11:00 a.m. EDT.

“We may see some heavy rains as a result, but we don’t expect any high winds or coastal flooding,” said John Dosh, manager of Emergency Management for Escambia County, where Pensacola is located.

Pensacola Beach condominiums had warned residents to bring balcony furniture indoors. After the storm passed farther east, early morning joggers and tourists seeking sea shells dotted the early morning sands.

Surf shop instructor Ben Martin pulled up on the beach in his pickup truck with surfboards in the back around 6:30 a.m. Official surf conditions were moderate, but Martin predicted a great day.

“We are going to get some pretty good surf,” Martin said. “Every surfer that owns a board is going to call in sick.”

Far out in the Pacific, Hurricane Guillermo weakened to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds near 60 mph. Guillermo was centered about 695 miles east of Hilo, Hawaii, and moving west-northwest near 18 mph.

Heavy thunderstorms rolled over the northeastern Caribbean as Ana, the first named storm of the season, moved quickly toward the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which is still struggling to recover from last year’s four devastating storms.

Tropical storm watches for Antigua, Barbuda and Montserrat were discontinued. But watches remained in effect for Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, St. Maarten and several other islands in the area. Ana was forecast to bring 2 to 4 inches of rain.

Despite the storms, a warmer weather pattern called El Nino over the Pacific Ocean is generally expected to damper the formation of tropical storms in the Caribbean and Atlantic this year, said Brian Daly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, Ala.

Forecasters revised their Atlantic hurricane season predictions after the first two months of the season passed without any named storms developing.

Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy in Miami contributed to this report.

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