Downgraded Alberto spawns tornadoes in Carolinas; Ga. farmers glad for rain

Thursday, June 15, 2006

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- After splashing ashore in Florida without much punch, the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto churned northward Wednesday, bringing much-needed rain to the Southeast but also spawning damaging tornadoes.

By early Wednesday, Alberto had weakened from a tropical storm to a tropical depression over the Carolinas and all tropical storm warnings were discontinued.

But as it headed up the East Coast, the storm still pushed nasty weather ahead of it.

At least six small tornadoes were reported in South Carolina, one in downtown Charleston that broke car windows during the evening rush hour Tuesday and another that caused injuries. Wind gusts over 40 mph knocked down trees and power lines in three counties. Several regions were under flood warnings.

The storm was expected to move off the coast Wednesday night, after dumping up to five inches of rain on parts of Virginia and Maryland.

By midday, its center was slowly moving north of Raleigh, N.C., where as much as 5 inches of rain fell and a downtown shopping mall was closed because of flooded parking areas and roads.

National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Vincent in North Carolina said the threat of tornadoes would continue as high-level winds continued to swirl.

"These remnant tropical systems, even though it may not be windy at the ground, it's kind of hard to kill the circulation aloft," Vincent said. "The winds above the ground can still be kind of strong."

After last year's record 28 named storms and 15 hurricanes, Alberto's approach over the Gulf of Mexico caused a brief scare and prompted a call for more than 20,000 people to evacuate Florida's gulf coast. But no serious injuries or widespread damage was reported there, and officials said it was a good tune-up for the long hurricane season ahead. It was the first named storm of the June-November Atlantic hurricane season.

Alberto's winds were about 50 mph when it came ashore near Adams Beach, Fla., still strong enough to be a tropical storm, but well below the 74-mph threshold for a hurricane.

Instead of a disaster, Alberto's rainfall may turn out to be a blessing for Florida's efforts to battle wildfires and for farmers in Georgia who were worried about drought.

"It's definitely a million-dollar rain," said Joe McManus, a marketing specialist with the Georgia Farm Bureau in Macon. "It could save some cotton and peanut fields."

Officials said the storm also gave them real-world practice on the lessons learned from the slow response to some of last year's storms. Hurricane specialists said they ran into a few computer glitches but nothing that couldn't be fixed before the next storm.

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

In Crystal River, Fla., water was thigh-high in the heart of the town on Tuesday as the storm hit, but it had receded by Wednesday. Many people seemed to accept flooding as part of coastal life -- and sighed with relief that it wasn't worse.

"I think overall it could have been worse," said Leslie Sturmer, whose Cedar Key, Fla., neighborhood was briefly cut off from the rest of the state by flooding. "We would have evacuated if there was a serious storm, but this wasn't."

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