Tropical storm hits Florida Panhandle

Monday, Aug 17, 2009 7:48 AM
Last updated 12:06 PM
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PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — A quick-forming tropical storm blew into the Florida Panhandle today and quickly lost steam, and the first hurricane of this year's Atlantic season took shape over the open ocean on a track for Bermuda.

Claudette was downgraded to a tropical depression this morning with top sustained winds near 35 mph after coming ashore a few hours earlier as the first named storm to hit the U.S. mainland this year.

Claudette made landfall near Fort Walton Beach early Monday less than 12 hours after forming over the Gulf.

Claudette was headed across Alabama toward northeastern Mississippi, bringing heavy rains. It was not expected to cause significant flooding or wind damage.

The Augusta area was not expected to be affected by the storm. This week's forecast calls for partly cloudy skies, a high of 96 today and highs in the low to mid-90s the rest of the week.

Elsewhere, Hurricane Bill had maximum sustained winds near 75 mph but was expected to strengthen.

"We do believe (Bill) could become a major hurricane during the next couple of days," said Daniel Brown, a hurricane specialist for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Bill was centered about 1,160 miles east of the Lesser Antilles and moving quickly west-northwest at 22 mph. The first hurricane of the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season ironically shares the same name as National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read.

On the Gulf Coast, Claudette's maximum sustained winds had decreased to near 40 mph. Forecasters said it would probably become a tropical depression later in the day.

The storm was moving northwest near 12 mph on a track expected to take it over the western portion of the Florida Panhandle and into southern Alabama. The storm was expected to move into northeastern Mississippi on Monday night.

A day before Claudette's arrival, condominiums on Pensacola Beach warned residents to bring balcony furniture indoors. Earlier Sunday, a trickle of cars and SUVs with surfboards on top headed east along the Panhandle as surfers were catching waves whipped up by Claudette.

On Pensacola Beach, the National Park Service closed low-lying roads that connect the restaurants and hotels to the undeveloped National Seashore and historic Fort Pickens Fort. The Park Service said campers would be ordered to leave the area because of the likelihood of the road flooding.

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.

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

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

Meanwhile, far out in the Pacific, Hurricane Guillermo weakened to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds near 70 mph. Guillermo was centered about 815 miles east of Hilo, Hawaii, and moving west-northwest near 15 mph.

Elsewhere, Tropical Depression Ana was moving quickly across the northeastern Caribbean Sea early Monday. It was expected to make reach the coast of the Dominican Republic later in the day.

Tropical storm watches for Antigua, Barbuda and Montserrat were discontinued. But watches remained in effect for Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, St. Maarten and several other islands in the area. Ana was forecast to bring 2 to 4 inches of rain.

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.

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

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