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Tropical Storm Claudette makes landfall in Florida

Tropical Storm Claudette made landfall on the Florida Panhandle near Fort Walton Beach early Monday, making it the first named storm to hit the U.S. mainland this year.

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Claudette Satellite -
MELISSA NELSON (Associated Press Writer)
PENSACOLA BEACH, FLA. — Tropical Storm Claudette made landfall on the Florida Panhandle near Fort Walton Beach early Monday, making it the first named storm to hit the U.S. mainland this year.

Even before its arrival, Claudette dumped heavy rains in some areas Sunday. But it was not expected to cause significant flooding or wind damage.

Claudette's maximum sustained winds upon making landfall were near 50 mph. But the storm was expected to weaken as it moved over land. 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.

Miguel Gonzalez, on vacation from North Carolina, was unconcerned about the storm as he readied his children for day on Pensacola Beach on Sunday. But he said his family would head in if the rain started.

"We will just stay out there for an hour or so, take a few pictures and then leave," he said.

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.

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

The storm tide was 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.

Austin Dunleavy, a tourist from Dublin, Ireland, said he also was frightened by news of the storm Sunday night.

"In Ireland, it rains all the time, so I'm used to that," he said. "But there are no storms like this. If this was a hurricane, I'd be packing my bags right now."

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

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

Elsewhere, Tropical Depression Ana was moving into the northeastern Caribbean Sea early Monday. It was expected to make landfall as a depression at the Leeward Islands. 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.

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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