Subtropical Storm Alberto's trip into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday brought bands of rain and wind, but little damage into the Tampa Bay area. The storm, with winds up to 50 mph, is expected to reach landfall in Florida's panhandle Monday.
The season's first named storm was gaining momentum and strength as it moved through the eastern Gulf Sunday, said Jeff Huffman, meteorologist with the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network.
Sunday's 11 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center showed the storm tracking to reach landfall somewhere between Panama City and Destin, now on Monday afternoon.
For the Tampa Bay area, Huffman said the risk is all about rain. It will come in waves with long enough breaks in between that it should be manageable, he said.
“It’s not going to be as serious as feared,” he said.
Tropical Storm Warnings were suspended for the most of the Tampa Bay area late Sunday. The National Weather Service 11 p.m. advisory had only coastal Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Levy counties under the warning. Rip current and high surf advisories continued along Gulf Coast beaches in the Tampa Bay region, down to Sarasota and Lee Counties.
As of 5 p.m., Alberto was located 165 miles west of Tampa and the center was located 120 miles south of Apalachicola. The storm has been rather disorganized for most of its life over water, which is why it has earned the “subtropical” classification.
But the storm has become more tropical in nature. “With deep convection closer to the center and a slightly smaller radius of maximum winds, it appears that Alberto is beginning its transition to a tropical cyclone,” the National Hurricane Center stated in its Sunday morning update. Further strengthening is anticipated before landfall.
The National Weather Service says a storm surge of 2-to-4 feet is possible in flood prone areas along the coast, although specifics on where the highest water rise might be are “still unfolding” at this time. Tropical Storm force winds of 40 to 50 mph are possible near and up to 150 miles to the east of where the center of Alberto comes ashore.
However, considerable uncertainty still exists on precisely when and where those winds may occur, Huffman said. The low confidence is due to the somewhat disorganized and erratic track record Alberto has exhibited so far.
The primary hazard from Subtropical Storm Alberto has always been, and still is, heavy rain. Both types of inland flooding - flash flooding and river flooding - are possible over the next few days, especially considering the size and depth of Alberto's moisture field.
Intense rainfall rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour may occur during thunderstorms through Wednesday, and this could cause a rapid water rise near creeks and streams that are already filled to their banks.
Those same creeks and streams will then drain into larger rivers that might also flood for several days after the event. Five-day rainfall totals in the Florida panhandle are expected to be in the 4- to 6-inch range, with locally higher amounts up to 10 inches possible near and east of Alberto's path.
While the coastal hazards, such as surge and wind, are expected to subside by Tuesday, the persistent onshore flow is likely to keep rain chances elevated through the end of the week. The risk for rip currents will also remain high at area beaches for several days, and water enthusiasts are encouraged to use caution or check with local authorities before entering the water.
Still, the storm is putting a major damper on one of the biggest money makers for Florida’s beach industry. Normally packed with vacationers over the Memorial Day weekend, beaches along the eastern U.S. Gulf Coast were largely empty Sunday as a slowly intensifying storm carrying brisk winds and heavy rain approached.
Under overcast skies and occasional drizzle, several Gulfport, Mississippi, residents lined up to fill 10- and 20-pound (5- and 9-kilogram) bags with sand they will use to block any encroaching floodwater expected as a result of Alberto.
Tommy Whitlock said sandbagging has become a usual event in his life since he lives next to a creek.
"I'm doing this because every time we have a hard rain, it floods at my house," Whitlock said. "We get water from other neighborhoods, and water can get up to a foot deep in some places."
Eddy Warner, a retired consultant for a construction company, filled bags while waiting for his nephew to come help transport them home to protect his garage.
"I'm 65 years old and too old to be doing this," he said, laughing.
Alberto — the first named storm of the 2018 hurricane season that officially starts June 1 — is expected to strengthen until it reaches the northern Gulf Coast, likely on Monday night.
The NWS said waves as high as 18 feet (5.5 meters) could pound the popular Gulf beaches in Baldwin County, Alabama, and northwestern Florida on Monday. A high surf warning was in effect through 7 p.m. Tuesday local time.