Beryl now a tropical storm, nears S.E. coast

Updated at 11:52 p.m. ET

(AP) Tropical Storm Beryl was close to making landfall in the southeastern U.S. late Sunday, as coastal areas were already starting to feel the impact of drenching rains and driving winds.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami reported late Sunday that Beryl was 35 miles east of Jacksonville, Fla., and 75 miles south-southeast of Brunswick, Ga. Forecasters said the storm was moving west at 7 mph and that its center should cross the coast over the next few hours.

Beryl had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph — close to hurricane-strength — with higher gusts. One park near Jacksonville Beach, Fla., was reporting winds of 53 mph.

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Forecasters said the system should begin to weaken over the next day or so, as it moves inland and becomes a tropical depression.

Tropical storm warnings were in effect for the entire Georgia coastline, as well as parts of Florida and South Carolina.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged Florida residents in the affected areas to "stay alert and aware."

"Tropical Storm Beryl is expected to bring heavy rain and winds, and it is vital to continue to monitor local news reports and listen to the advice of local emergency management officials," Scott said in a statement early Sunday evening.

Beryl was expected to bring 4 to 8 inches of rain to parts, with some areas getting as much as 12 inches. Forecasters predict the storm surge and tide will cause significant coastal flooding in northeastern Florida, Georgia and southern South Carolina.

The weather system could complicate holiday traffic on Monday, and it wrecked some Memorial Day weekend plans on Sunday, causing shoreline campers to pack up and head inland and leading to the cancellation of some events.

Campers at Cumberland Island, Ga., which is reachable only by boat, were told to leave by 4:45 p.m. Sunday. The island has a number of undeveloped beaches and forests popular with campers.

However, many people seemed determined to make the best of the soggy forecast.

At Greyfield Inn, a 19th-century mansion and the only private inn on Cumberland Island, the rooms were nearly full Sunday and everyone was planning to stay put through the wet weather, said Dawn Drake, who answered the phone at the inn's office on the Florida coast.

In Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday's jazz festival and Memorial Day ceremony were canceled. Workers were also out clearing tree limbs and debris that could be tossed about by the storm's winds. Winds had already knocked down tree limbs and power lines in parts of coastal Georgia, leaving hundreds without electricity.

But business was booming at the Red Dog Surf Shop in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., where customers flocked to buy boards and wax in anticipation of the storm's high waves. Officials along the coast warned of rip currents, waves and high tides — all of which can be dangerous but also tend to attract adventurous surfers. The waters had already become dangerous in South Carolina, where rescuers were searching for a missing swimmer.

The Coast Guard said three people and a dog were rescued from a sinking recreational vehicle by crews in Charleston Harbor late Sunday morning.

"There were wave heights of roughly four feet, the waves started depositing water in the boat and the boat started to get overwhelmed, it started to sink," Petty Officer Christopher Evanson, a Coast Guard spokesman, told the Associated Press. "The Coast Guard was able to get on scene, get alongside the boat and disembark the passengers.

Evanson said the Guard is "trying to convince boaters and swimmers alike to stay away from the water. It's very dangerous right now and we're trying to stay vigilant and we're out there trying to ensure that everybody is safe.

In Jacksonville Beach, Fernando Sola said business was booming at his Happy Faces Ice Cream truck. A bus- full of tourists from South Carolina had stopped to buy some ice cream and watch the storm waters churn.

"There are actually more people than on a normal day. It's working out great," said Sola, taking a few moments away from scooping ice cream to people lined up in front of his truck.

Steady, heavy winds kicked up sand across the area, forcing onlookers to shield themselves with towels.

Jessica Smith and Chester Jaheeb decided to brave the waters despite many warnings for people to stay out. Jaheeb, who was born in India but lives in Jacksonville, said he had never experienced a tropical storm before.

"We were at a certain part that started pulling us out, like the rip current, so we decided to come to shore," said Smith, 17.

Taylor Anderson, captain of Jacksonville Beach's American Red Cross Volunteer Lifesaving Corps., said his lifeguards went body-surfing early Sunday to get acclimated with the surf conditions for what looked to be a long day. They also reviewed methods to determine where there might be riptides.

"They look for discoloration, the water moving paradoxically back to sea, and our lifeguards are trained to spot that, to keep people away from that, especially when the surf is this high. It makes those run-outs very dangerous. People can get sucked into those very fast, especially with the high surf and the high wind," he said.

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