PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. – A strengthening Tropical Storm Arlene soaked parts of Florida as its center moved toward the northern Gulf Coast, stirring memories of last year’s devastating hurricane season.
Forecasters said Arlene, the Atlantic hurricane season’s first named tropical storm, could become a weak hurricane before making landfall in the Deep South late Saturday, with the worst weather arriving east of the storm’s center.
Arlene was then expected to move along the Mississippi-Alabama line, possibly reaching Tennessee by Sunday afternoon.
Tropical storm warnings and hurricane watches were posted from Florida to Louisiana, as Arlene’s top sustained winds reached 60 mph, up from 45 mph earlier in the day. The wind speed was likely to increase, but forecasters said the biggest impact would be heavy rain.
Residents in flood-prone areas along the Gulf Coast were urged to move to higher ground. In the vulnerable marshes south of New Orleans, bulldozers were moved into place in case water from a storm surge breaks through a levee.
In Pensacola Beach, where many residents are still living in government trailers because of damage from last year’s Hurricane Ivan, residents eyed the forecast warily.
Margie Wassner, 57, said she planned to ride out Arlene with friends inland in Pensacola.
“It’s pretty scary to me. I just kept hoping that we wouldn’t have anything, but I don’t know. It’s awfully early in the year to be having this,” she said.
Jeff Jackson, a real estate agent in Gulf Shores, Ala., worried that Arlene’s rain could undo some of the beach erosion repairs under way in his town since February.
“Coming so close to Ivan, it’s got people a little edgy,” he said.
Arlene passed Cuba’s westernmost tip early Friday, bringing heavy rain, gusty winds and rough seas to the region. A Russian exchange student died after being pulled from the rolling waves off Miami Beach early Friday, officials said.