Tropical Storm Alberto is Less Than Advertised


The first tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season gave emergency planners a chance to hold a not-so-dry run of their disaster plans - and gave storm-weary Gulf Coast residents a bit of a break.

Early predictions that Tropical Storm Alberto would strengthen into a hurricane didn't pan out. But officials said the weaker-than-forecast storm still gave them real-world practice on the lessons learned from the slow response to some of last year's storms.

'It was a nice tune-up, a nice warm-up,' said hurricane specialist Richard Pasch.

Residents were forced to sandbag homes and businesses as waters reached thigh-high in some neighborhoods. But many people seemed to accept flooding of that sort as part of coastal life - and sighed with relief that it wasn't worse.

'We probably got about 2 inches in the house,' said Scott Faulkenberg, 39, the owner of a scuba diving shop in Crystal River. He said it was the fourth time in six years his home had flooded, but he had no plans to move.

'We need a new carpet anyway,' he said.

The storm's center came ashore around 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 brief 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 hurricane season in 40 years.

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

In Crystal River, two manatees explored what had been the front lawn of David Garrick's apartment building, relieving the tension of a long afternoon after Garrick tried unsuccessfully to keep water out of the complex.

'Look at them,' Garrick said, cracking his first smile of the day.

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 cleared the area.

But 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.'

The only road in and out of Cedar Key for the island's 940 residents, was briefly closed because of flooding. But Cedar Key City Commissioner Pat O'Neal said, 'We dodged a bullet.'

A total of about 21,000 homes and businesses lost power during the storm. All but 4,300 customers had electricity restored by early evening.

It was unclear how many of those ordered to evacuate their homes actually left.

Levy County sheriff's Capt. Chuck Bastak said residents of Cedar Key in the gulf were 'gun shy' about evacuating after a no-name storm of 1993 beat up the island and authorities were slow to let them return to their homes.

'They're kind of hard-core,' Bastak said of some longtime island residents. 'It would take an act of Congress, God and weather to get them out of there.'

In assessing their disaster plans, hurricane specialists said they ran into a few computer glitches but nothing that couldn't be fixed by the next storm.

'You can train all you want, but nothing beats the real deal,' said state Emergency Management spokesman Mike Stone.

'The evacuations went as planned,' Gov. Jeb Bush said. 'I can assure you that if a stronger storm comes our way, that we have a great team.'

Alberto's rainfall should also help the state battle wildfires that have blazed in different areas over the past two months, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said. Eighteen brush fires were extinguished by Tuesday's rain, but about 150 were still active, Bronson said.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Alberto was located 55 miles southwest of Statesboro, Ga., midway between Alma and Vidalia, Ga. It was moving northeast near 16 mph with maximum sustained winds near 40 mph. A tropical storm warning was discontinued for Florida's Big Bend, where the Florida Peninsula juts into the Gulf of Mexico. A tropical storm warning remained in effect for Florida's northern Atlantic Coast, into Georgia and South Carolina. A flood watch was issued for South Carolina, where more than 5 inches of rain was possible.

Scientists have predicted an active 2006 storm season, with a16 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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