BY MITCH STACY
The Associated Press
CEDAR KEY, Fla. - More than 20,000 people along Florida's Gulf Coast were ordered to clear out Monday as Alberto - the very first tropical storm of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season - unexpectedly picked up steam and threatened to come ashore as a hurricane.
Forecasters posted a hurricane warning for the Gulf Coast and a tropical storm warning from north of Daytona Beach to the Georgia-South Carolina line. Alberto, which could begin battering the Gulf coast early Tuesday, was expected to cross through Florida and into Georgia.
Gov. Jeb Bush signed a declaration of emergency allowing him to call up the National Guard and put laws against price gouging into effect.
"We're talking about powerful forces of nature," Bush said. "People need to take this very seriously."
If Alberto came ashore as a hurricane, it would be the earliest hurricane in 40 years to hit the United States, according to the National Hurricane Center. The earliest on record is Alma, which in 1966 struck the Florida Panhandle on June 9 - the ninth day of the hurricane season.
Alberto started as a tropical depression on Saturday, and forecasters over the weekend were confident it would not become a hurricane. But the storm's winds accelerated with startling speed from 50 mph to 70 mph in just three hours Monday morning. The minimum for a hurricane is 74 mph.
"We were surprised, but we've been surprised before," said Richard Pasch of the hurricane center. "The center in disorganized storms can re-form and jump."
Florida homeowners stocked up on chain saws, plywood and other emergency supplies. Employees at a marina in St. Petersburg said they planned to work through the night securing more than 600 boats against the wind and waves.
"This is a little earlier that I expected," said marina manager Walter Miller. "But we've had a bad couple of years, so it's not entirely unexpected."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Monday it had evacuation buses and emergency supplies standing by, but state officials in the affected areas had not asked for immediate help.
Forecasters said Alberto would probably become only a weak Category 1 hurricane, meaning winds of 74 mph to 95 mph, because the warm water from which hurricanes draw their strength is not particularly deep in the area.
At 8 p.m. EDT, Alberto was centered about 120 miles south of Apalachicola and about 130 miles southwest of Cedar Key, and was moving northeast near 8 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. Its top sustained winds remained at 70 mph.
"We don't want to overdo it. It's not a Katrina or a Wilma, but storm surge and flooding could still cause loss of life," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.
Evacuation orders were posted for people in mobile homes or low-lying areas in at least five coastal counties stretching more than 100 miles. Those ordered to leave included about 21,000 residents of Citrus, Levy and Taylor counties.
Alberto was expected to blow ashore anywhere from north of Tampa to the Panhandle, with storm surges of up to 10 feet. Forecasters said it could bring 4 to 10 inches of rain to central Florida and southeastern Georgia. Rain already was falling Monday and at least two tornadoes had formed, but there were no immediate reports of any injuries or damage.
The approaching storm killed business at Palm Pavilion, a beachfront bar on Clearwater Beach, said manager Cindy Phillips. She used to be able to count on bigger crowds as a storm approached.
"It's lost its glamour," Phillips said. "People used to rush out to see the big waves. Now I think they're hiding out, counting their canned goods and their water supply. That's a lot smarter, probably."
Dick Grier, a retiree from Homosassa, said he planned to gas up his car and bring in lawn chairs. But "at this point I don't think it's the kind of thing that we worry about," he said.
Alberto also prevented the crew of space shuttle Discovery from flying to the Kennedy Space Center from Houston for several days of dress rehearsals for their expected launch in July.
On Monday, Alberto drenched western Cuba after a weekend of heavy rains prompted evacuations, caused some dilapidated buildings to collapse and flooded low-lying areas in Havana. There were no reports of other major damage or injuries.
More than 12 inches of rain fell in some rural areas over the weekend, the official Prensa Latina news agency reported.
Scientists say the 2006 season could produce as many as 16 named storms, six of them major hurricanes. Last year's hurricane season was the most destructive on record and the busiest in 154 years of storm tracking, with a record 28 named storms and a record 15 hurricanes.
The first named storm of 2005, Tropical Storm Arlene, formed June 9 and came ashore just west of Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle.
Associated Press Writers Phil Davis in Tampa, Fla., Michelle Spitzer in Miami, Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Cuba, and Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov