Alberto Helps Crops, Preparedness

A home for sale sign sits in flood waters along a street in Crystal River, Fla., Tuesday afternoon June 13, 2006. The effects of Tropical Storm Alberto forced flooding in low lying areas of Citrus County. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
The remnants of the first named storm of the hurricane season churned through the southeastern U.S. early Wednesday, bringing much-needed rain and offering officials a chance to practice their storm preparations.

Alberto splashed ashore in Florida without its once-feared punch, and weakened early Wednesday over South Carolina from a tropical storm to a tropical depression. All tropical storm warnings were discontinued, the National Hurricane Center said.

The storm was expected to lose all characteristics later in the day, though possibly could strengthen again.

Forecasters said the center of circulation would track into the Carolinas from Georgia, pushing nasty weather ahead of it. Storm winds gusting over 40 mph began moving into South Carolina late Tuesday, knocking down trees and power lines in three counties.

After last year's 28 named storms and record 15 hurricanes, Tropical Storm Alberto caused a brief scare and prompted a call for more than 20,000 people to evacuate Florida's Gulf Coast. But no serious injuries or deaths were reported.

"Maybe this is just a little training exercise for the rest of the season," said Cedar Key resident Bob Johnson.

At 5 a.m. EDT, Alberto had maximum sustained winds near 35 mph and was moving northeast at about 21 mph, forecasters said. The center of the depression was located about 35 miles south-southwest of Columbia, South Carolina. The threshold for a named storm is a system with maximum sustained winds of 39 mph.

About 2-4 inches of rain were forecast for the Carolinas and parts of Virginia, with isolated heavier rains along the coast. At least six small tornadoes were reported in South Carolina's Lowcountry, including one that injured one person and damaged homes and cars.

Alberto's winds were about 50 mph when it came ashore near Adams Beach, Florida, well below even a Category I hurricane's 74-mph threshold. In 40 years, no hurricane has hit the United States this early in the hurricane season, which begins June 1.

"It's always important we take these storms seriously and make sure that we're on watch and that we're prepared for whatever might come," said Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist.

Instead, Alberto's rainfall may turn out to be a blessing for Florida's efforts to battle wildfires and for farmers in Georgia worried about drought.

"It's definitely a million-dollar rain," said Joe McManus, a marketing specialist with the Georgia Farm Bureau in Macon. "It could save some cotton and peanut fields."

Farmer Orson Adams, 65, said "this is a welcome rain," which he hoped would help germinate cotton seeds he planted several weeks ago in Douglas, Georgia. "We've got a chance now to survive."

Officials said the storm also gave them real-world practice with new measures to improve on the slow response to some of last year's storms. Hurricane specialists said they had run into a few computer glitches, but nothing that could not be fixed by the next storm.

"It was a nice tune-up, a nice warm-up," hurricane specialist Richard Pasch said. Florida's Emergency Management spokesman Mike Stone put it another way: "You can train all you want, but nothing beats the real deal."