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Tropical Storm Claudette churns toward northwest Florida

Paying attention to the 2009 hurricane season is as easy as minding your ABC's.

As in Ana, Bill and Claudette.

After 11 weeks of a quiet hurricane season, three separate systems swirled across Floridians' television sets and computer monitors on Sunday.

"We're getting into the peak of the season," Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure said.

Tropical Storm Claudette popped up Sunday morning, close to the Florida Panhandle in the Gulf of Mexico. By 11 p.m. Sunday, it had winds of at least 50 mph and was 70 miles southeast of Pensacola, moving northwest at about 12 mph. The third named storm of the season, Claudette was expected to make landfall in the Panhandle early this morning, without producing widespread flooding or wind damage.

Lurking more ominously was Tropical Storm Bill, which was east of the Lesser Antilles and was quickly turning into a powerful storm over warm waters in the open Atlantic. Ana, a tropical storm that had also been churning in the Atlantic, had weakened to a depression. It was expected to make landfall at the Leeward Islands early today.

As Claudette moved toward land Sunday night, skies clouded and bands of intermittent heavy rain moved on shore, but the Panhandle was largely calm.

Forecast to come ashore east of Pensacola, Claudette would be the first tropical storm to strike the U.S. mainland this year.

Condominiums on Pensacola Beach warned residents to bring balcony furniture indoors with winds anticipated to strengthen throughout the evening. A trickle of cars and SUVs with surfboards on top headed east along the Panhandle as surfers hoped to catch waves whipped up by Claudette.

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 extreme 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, Escambia County's 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."

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

Meanwhile, Ana lost strength as it approached the Leeward Islands Sunday afternoon and was downgraded from a tropical storm to a tropical depression.

But meteorologists were still watching Bill, as it gained strength in the open Atlantic as it followed behind Ana. Though Bill could reach hurricane force of at least 74 mph today, current forecast tracks keep it out of the Gulf of Mexico.

"Right now, it looks like it's going to stay in the Atlantic," McClure said. "It's moving just to our east."

The Tampa Bay area did not receive any measurable precipitation Sunday as Claudette jogged up the west coast, but it produced heavy rains out in the gulf, McClure said.

Despite the three storms, a warmer weather pattern called El Niño over the Pacific Ocean is generally expected to put a damper on 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.

"It's pretty frequent that an El Niño year would be somewhat delayed with fewer storms," Daly said.

Tropical Storm Claudette churns toward northwest Florida 08/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 6:56pm]

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