Tropical Storm threatens Fla.

Monday, August 17, 2009

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. -- Claudette was close to coming ashore along the Florida Panhandle late Sunday, with the first tropical storm expected to strike the U.S. mainland this year already dumping heavy rain in some areas.

Claudette had winds of at least 50 mph, but was not expected to cause significant flooding or wind damage. Tropical Storm Bill, still in the open Atlantic, was expected to turn into a hurricane today as it moves over warm waters.

Rainfall of 3 to 6 inches was expected, with isolated areas getting up to 10 inches along the Panhandle, the Big Bend region, central and southern Alabama and southwestern Georgia, forecasters said.

"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.

"This event is a good example of how quickly a tropical storm can develop. We won't always have a lot of warning. This is why citizens need to be prepared throughout hurricane season."

In Panama City, the Bay County Emergency Operations Center opened a shelter at a local high school for residents of low-lying areas and people with special needs.

A tropical storm warning covers most of the Panhandle, from the Alabama state line to the Suwanee River more than 300 miles to the east.

The storm tide is expected to produce maximum water levels of 3 to 5 feet along portions of the Panhandle.

Alexander Hanrahan, a tourist from London, watched Claudette roll into Pensacola. He said his family feared the storm after watching the television in their beach-front condominium.

"We were actually deliberating whether to get out on the road, but when we got out it was nothing. My mom was nervous because she's not used to driving here anyway," Hanrahan said.

Pensacola Beach is still recovering from Hurricane Ivan, which devastated the western Florida Panhandle and parts of Alabama in 2004.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Claudette was about 25 miles west of Panama City and moving northwest near 12 mph. Its center was expected to move onshore early Monday and into southern Alabama later in the day.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Bill, was intensifying far from land in the open Atlantic, and could become a hurricane early Monday. It had sustained winds of 70 mph. Category 1 hurricanes have winds between 74 and 95 mph.

Winds from what used to be Tropical Storm Ana diminished to 35 mph and it was expected to make landfall as a depression at the Leeward Islands early Monday. Watches were posted for Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Antigua, St. Maarten and several other islands in the area. Ana was forecast to bring 2 to 4 inches of rain.

In the Pacific, Hurricane Guillermo continued to weaken with winds dropping to 75 mph. Guillermo was moving at 15 mph on a track that would take it well away from the Hawaiian Islands, forecasters said.

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.

"It's pretty frequent that an El Nino year would be somewhat delayed with fewer storms," Daly said.

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

Associated Press writer Desiree Hunter in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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