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Gabrielle sends up hurricane watches

click here for florida forecast Even with the slow-moving tropical storm expected to hit near Sarasota, other bay area counties close schools today.

By CRAIG PITTMAN and LISA GREENE


Forecasters put Florida's southwest coast on hurricane watch from Tarpon Springs south to the Everglades Thursday after a tropical depression that had been stalled in the Gulf of Mexico picked up enough strength and speed to become Tropical Storm Gabrielle.

As of 11 p.m. Thursday, the center of Gabrielle - the seventh named storm of the season - was about 150 miles west-southwest of Naples, moving northeast at 6 mph. If it continues in that direction, forecasters say, the storm's eye would arrive in Florida later today somewhere near Sarasota with sustained winds around 70 mph, making it a strong tropical storm or minimal hurricane.

If the forecast holds - and officials at the National Hurricane Center warned that it was subject to another significant change - the Tampa Bay area could get 5 to 10 inches of rain, but would be spared storm surge and the worst winds.

Still, with the storm's path uncertain, officials in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties decided to close schools today.

Residents of low-lying, flood-prone areas and mobile home residents should be prepared to seek shelter this morning, said David Bilodeau, Pinellas County emergency management director.

But Pinellas officials have yet to call for an evacuation. Emergency personnel plan to meet at 6 a.m. today to decide what to do.

No other county has called for an evacuation either, in part because the storm's path remains unpredictable. Forecasters say Gabrielle - which had been described as "meandering" until Thursday afternoon - could still turn more to the north, creating a bigger problem for Tampa Bay and residents to the north. A tropical storm warning was posted for the west coast up to the Suwannee River.

"We've changed our mind every six hours for the last two days," National Hurricane Center forecaster David Rittenberry said. "We could change our minds twice before tomorrow."

Hurricanes that brew in the gulf are "always the hardest to forecast and do the goofiest things," warned Bilodeau. As a result, "we may be looking at anything from a mandatory (evacuation) to a voluntary to nothing."

If Gabrielle's sustained winds reach 40 mph, the Sunshine Skyway bridge could close and other bridges may shut down too.

The one certainty is rain, and lots of it, landing on already saturated ground, filling the streets and backing up into low-lying areas.

"It's going to be a major flooding event," said Ann Rowe, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. "We're going to have lots of urban flooding . . . within the next 24 hours."

Landfall in Pasco County would be a worst case for Pinellas and Hillsborough residents because the storms circulate counter-clockwise, Bilodeau explained. That would push water up into Tampa Bay and cause substantial flooding, he said.

Even a low-level storm that brushes by Pinellas could cause significant flooding, Bilodeau said. He pointed to Tropical Storm Josephine, which in 1996 affected more than 4,000 homes across the state - most of them in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Hillsborough, Manatee or Sarasota counties.

When the hurricane warning went out, officials at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa began moving 12 refueling aircraft to McConnell Air Force Base outside Wichita, Kan., to get them out of the storm's path.

But among civilians the storm was barely registering, even along the vulnerable Pinellas beaches. Richard M. Slezak, who owns the Beach House hotel in Treasure Island, said he wasn't ready to start moving mattresses to higher ground yet.

"We will probably wait a little longer before we start preparing," Slezak said. "Until we have more certainty, it's quite an arduous task."

In Citrus County, emergency operations director James T. Soukup warned residents to pay careful attention to the storm's path and be prepared to flee if necessary.

"People have a complacency about evacuating because most people have not been through the fury of what a hurricane can do," he said. "Take it seriously."

In Manatee County, authorities were hopeful that people had begun to pay attention to the churning tropical system.

"We're starting to get a lot of calls coming in from our citizens, so we know they're paying attention," said Laurie Feagans, Manatee County emergency management chief.

- Times staff writers Alicia Caldwell, Amy Wimmer, Jennifer Farrell and Paul de la Garza contributed to this story, which includes information from the Associated Press.

Be prepared

Copies of the St. Petersburg Times/Channel 10 Hurricane Guide 2001 can be picked up at Times bureaus, local Allstate Insurance offices or viewed online at sptimes.com.

On the Net:

  • National Weather Service: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/mia
  • National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

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