By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Andrea pelted Florida’s northern Gulf Coast on Thursday and was forecast to drench much of the U.S. Southeast as it cuts across Georgia and up the Atlantic coast, the National Hurricane Center said.
The season’s first Atlantic tropical storm was churning in the Gulf of Mexico, centered about 110 miles west of Tampa, Florida, the center said. Moving northeast, Andrea was expected to make landfall on Thursday evening over the Big Bend area, where the Florida Peninsula meets the Panhandle, a strip of land between Alabama and Georgia to the north and the Gulf.
Andrea packed top sustained winds of 60 miles per hour and was expected to weaken slightly as it crossed into the Atlantic.
It will likely remain a tropical storm for a couple of days, hugging the shore and bringing heavy rain and gales to Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, said Jack Beven, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.
“It might be just inland and it might be just a little off shore. It’s going to be close enough to the shore that it’s not going to dissipate,” Beven said.
“It’s going to be a weather-maker as it goes up the north coast of the United States.”
On Saturday, Andrea was expected to merge with a frontal system and morph into a Nor’easter as it moved over the northeastern U.S. coast and Nova Scotia.
Andrea posed no threat to U.S. energy interests in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tropical storm warnings were in effect for much of Florida’s Gulf Coast and for the U.S. Atlantic Coast from northern Florida to Virginia, including the lower Chesapeake Bay.
The storm’s outer bands had begun buffeting Florida’s west coast by midday.
There were reports that tornadoes had already touched down in Florida, including one that damaged several houses in the Acreage and Loxahatchee communities in Palm Beach County. A woman was injured and taken to a hospital after a tree fell through her roof, the Palm Beach Post said
Florida could get up to 6 inches of rain and a few tornadoes, while coastal areas south of where Andrea comes ashore could see a storm surge, the forecasters said.
Some Gulf Coast beaches were closed, and two counties offered sand and sandbags to residents in low-lying areas.
There were a few scattered power outages in Florida, with about 3,700 customers losing service.
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30.
The U.S. government’s top climate agency warned in an annual forecast last month that this year’s season could be “extremely active” with 13 to 20 tropical storms, seven to 11 of which are expected to become hurricanes.
Three of the six hurricanes could become major at Category 3 or above, with winds of more than 110 mph, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Vicki Allen and Doina Chiacu)
[Andrea, the first tropical storm of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, is seen in this image taken by NASA’s GOES East satellite on June 5, 2013. REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters]