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Alberto intensifies quickly

Officials worry that residents won't take the storm seriously. About 21,000 people in low-lying areas are told to evacuate.

Published June 13, 2006

CEDAR KEY - Tropical Storm Alberto was expected to make landfall this morning in the Big Bend region and deliver a second day of nasty weather to the Tampa Bay area after quickly intensifying Monday.

Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center predicted that Alberto could come ashore near Steinhatchee or as far south as Crystal River as a strong tropical storm or weak Category 1 hurricane.

Parts of the Big Bend region could see 100 mph gusts and 10 feet of storm surge, forecasters said. About 21,000 residents in low-lying areas and some mobile homes from Citrus to Wakulla counties were told to evacuate.

The Tampa Bay area, which remained under a hurricane warning late Monday night, can expect winds of at least 40 mph again today, flooding in low-lying areas, an additional 4 inches of rain, possible tornadoes and extensive beach erosion.

The region could also experience "training thunderstorms," in which several cells of severe weather line up behind one another like train cars. That means higher winds and more rain in concentrated areas, increasing the chance of flooding.

State officials worried that too many coastal residents weren't taking Alberto seriously. They evoked memories of Tropical Storm Josephine and the 1993 "no name" storm that caught many residents by surprise, killing dozens and flooding many low areas along the Gulf Coast.

"I hope people aren't being defiant and recognize that this is a dangerous time,'' said Gov. Jeb Bush.

Alberto won't be all bad because it "will immediately help our lake levels and stream flows,'' said Rebecca Courier of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud. It will replenish the underground aquifer, too, she said, though "it takes a couple of days to soak in.''

Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the state agency that oversees the Division of Forestry, said Alberto will help put an end to the wildfires that have plagued the state the past few months.

"The Tampa Bay area in particular has been inundated,'' McElroy said.

Alberto, moving northeast at 10 mph, quickly gained strength Monday as it crossed the Loop Current, a deep trough of clockwise flowing warm water that fueled several of last year's monster storms. Alberto's sustained winds jumped from 50 to 70 mph in three hours.

Predicting storm intensity is always tricky, said hurricane specialist Richard Pasch.

Alberto could strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane (74 to 95 mph sustained winds) before it lands. A hurricane has not struck the United States this early in the year since Hurricane Alma hit the Panhandle on June 9, 1966.

"We were surprised, but we've been surprised before," Pasch said. "We try to tell emergency management officials that storms can be stronger by one category than what we predicted."

Alberto formed late last week as a tropical depression and drenched western Cuba and then southwest Florida as it moved north through the Gulf of Mexico. It is forecast to cross North Florida and diminish as it moves into Georgia. If the storm heads east, it could restrengthen over the Atlantic Ocean.

To the chagrin of emergency officials, many residents reacted to Alberto like Cedar Key business owner Paul Rimavicus. "This is nothing more than a big squall coming through," he said.

Emergency officials warned against such an attitude. Ten years ago, they said, Tropical Storm Josephine followed a similar path. In October 1996, the fairly weak storm hit 180 miles from Tampa in Apalachee Bay.

Josephine's storm surge pushed water more than 5 feet above normal. Nearly 2,000 homes flooded in Pinellas County, costing about $24-million. Another 2,000 homes flooded in Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. At least 50,000 people in the Tampa Bay area lost power.

Despite that history, demand for hurricane supplies was low Monday afternoon at Lowe's in New Port Richey, said assistant manager Patrick Baca.

"People aren't taking it too seriously since it's the first named storm of the season," Baca said,

In Cedar Key, hurricane preparation had its own style: Take the boats to higher ground, tie down patio furniture and anything else that might take flight.

Bryan's Big Deck Raw Bar, built low next to the swirling water, serves anything that can be fried.

"We'll stay open,'' said Bryan Skarupski. "When it gets like this, all the knuckleheads come out."

Most Cedar Key's 900 residents stick around during storms, said police Chief Bubba Castell. In the small police station, home to Castell and four officers, the phone rang and rang.

"Police Department. This is Bubba." Pause. "Yes, ma'am." Pause. "You can come in at this time. The roads are not closed. Should be fine."

Castell hung up.

"Been like that all day," he said.

Times staff writers Chris Tisch, April Yee, Joni James, Craig Pittman and Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

[Last modified June 13, 2006, 05:49:40]

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