It has a name.
Subtropical Storm Alberto is crawling into the Gulf of Mexico, an unwelcome guest arriving a week before the official start of hurricane season.
The system, which became the first named storm of the year Friday, could bring five inches of soaking rain to the Tampa Bay region through the Memorial Day weekend, forecasters said. They predict it will make landfall around Mississippi or Alabama as a strong tropical storm.
Alberto is expected to spin a couple hundred miles west of Tampa Bay on Sunday morning, but will still soak the region through Tuesday.
"The east side of a storm, any storm, is the most dangerous side," National Weather Service meteorologist Rodney Wynn said. "Sunday will be one of the wettest days for us."
Across the bay area on Friday, county officials prepared for the deluge. They warned residents of street and river flooding, encouraged people to pay attention to the forecasts and discussed the possibility of distributing sandbags as needed.
"We think we’re prepared, but with the right amount of rain, it’s still going to overwhelm some of those areas where we see flooding after significant events," Pasco County Administrator Dan Biles said at a Friday afternoon news conference.
For much of the week, forecasters have warned of a system, or "invest," with a small but escalating chance to turn into something worse. Friday morning the storm became Alberto.
The National Hurricane Center said at about 2 p.m. Friday the storm was "meandering" in the northwest Caribbean Sea. Three hours later, it was about 85 miles southeast of Cozumel with 40 mph sustained winds. Tampa Bay is not expected to feel the storm’s strongest gusts, according to forecasters.
The hurricane center projected that the storm would enter the southeastern Gulf of Mexico by Saturday night.
"All the models are in pretty good agreement with it coming up to the north and then curving to the northwest as it approaches the Gulf Coast," Wynn said.
Subtropical Storm Alberto threatened to wash out Memorial Day weekend — the unofficial start of summer — for the U.S. Gulf Coast and much of Florida.
That includes Tampa Bay as well, where several events could be rained out. There’s the Sunset Music Festival, an annual electronic dance blowout in the Raymond James Stadium parking lot. Organizers of that festival, along with the 97X Barbecue Music and Arts Festival and Tampa Bay Margarita Festival, have urged attendees to follow forecasts and their social media accounts to keep track of updates.
Wynn said people may be able to squeeze in some cookouts but should avoid being outside if they hear thunderstorms.
"If you can have a cookout where it’s somewhere covered up then that’s fine," he said.
More than 2 million Floridians were expected to travel this weekend, according to AAA, despite rising gas prices. But the weather threatened to put a dent in those plans, according to the association.
After a week of heavy rain, forecasters said, they are watching several rivers that could tip banks, including the Alafia near Lithia, the Little Manatee and the Myakka at Myakka River State Park.
Pasco County Assistant County Administrator for Public Safety Kevin Guthrie said residents should remember that most flooding doesn’t happen until three or four days after a storm, so the risk will carry into late next week. County officials mentioned the Elfers Parkway near the Anclote River as a potential spot for flooding.
In Pinellas, county leaders on Friday were concerned about surface flooding of roads, cautioning drivers to avoid areas of deep water and be aware that streets could flood quickly during the storm. County spokesman Kevin Baxter said Subtropical Storm Alberto is an early warning for residents to be prepared for storm season, which officially starts June 1.
"Hurricane season is starting next week so it’s a good reminder to be ready," he said.
People planning to check out waves should be wary of rip currents and high surf at the beach, forecasters warned.
Jeff Masters, founder of the meteorology website Weather Underground, said a named storm develops this early and approaches land roughly every few years. Tampa Bay, he said, might see a foot or two of storm surge but not much wind.
Masters said he did not expect Subtropical Storm Alberto to cause evacuations, though he said the water level could rise high enough to force officials to dump water out of Lake Okeechobee, potentially spurring algae blooms up Florida’s coasts.
Tampa Bay residents, he said, should be aware of what’s coming, but not get frantic about it.
"Certainly anybody who lives on the Gulf Coast in the hurricane season should be paying attention," he said. "If you’re paying attention, you don’t need to worry."
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