Heavy rain drenched the Florida Panhandle early Saturday as Tropical Storm Arlene plodded toward the northern Gulf Coast, leaving weather-weary residents under a hurricane warning.
The warning stretched from Pascagoula, Miss., to Destin in the western Florida Panhandle, and inland communities also braced for a hit. By early Saturday sustained winds of 46 mph — with one gust of 69 mph — were recorded near Apalachicola, Fla., on the Panhandle's southern tip.
At 8 a.m. EDT, the storm was becoming somewhat less organized and was 105 miles south-southeast of Mobile, Ala., meandering toward the north-northwest at 15 mph. But forecasters said Arlene could build into a Category 1 storm by landfall, with its heaviest winds and rains east of the storm's center.
"This motion should bring the center of Arlene near or over the northern Gulf Coast later today or tonight," Jack Beven, a specialist with the National Hurricane Center, said early Saturday.
Hurricane conditions exist when a storm has sustained winds of at least 74 mph or dangerously high water or both. Arlene had sustained winds of 70 mph, with higher gusts.
Even though it is not as big storm as Hurricane Ivan, which sacked the Gulf states almost nine months ago, residents here are bracing themselves for this hurricane season's first born, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston.
From Texas to Tallahassee, people inventoried emergency kits and stocked up on staples like gas and wood. Others brought boats in to safe harbors and prepared to mount a defense, Pinkston reports.
The worst fears were in the Panhandle where piles of debris, gutted homes and storm-damaged roofs covered by plastic blue tarps are vivid reminders of Ivan's wrath.
"I was pretty shocked to see how bad it still was," said tourist Roddy Rogers, 46, of Springfield, Mo. "I've been in third-world countries and it looks kind of like that in some places."
Officials urged thousands of people in low-lying areas of three Panhandle counties to evacuate, and people flocked to hardware stores to buy generators, flashlights and other hurricane supplies. At the Islander Package and Lounge in Pensacola Beach, a sign read, "Here we go again."
Much of the Panhandle was getting heavy rain early Saturday, and forecasters said 5-foot storm surges and up to 8 inches of precipitation were possible — making flooding the primary concern. Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., residents worried about the storm undoing repairs and adding to beach erosion from Hurricane Ivan. Sue Alford had her beachside townhouse repaired but still has a big steel container of Ivan debris in front of the building.
"My biggest concern is there's so much debris around," she said.
Tropical storm warnings extended from Destin to Steinhatchee along the north Florida coast — communities separated by nearly 200 miles. Flash flood watches were issued for parts of northwest Florida, southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama.
Arlene moved northward Friday through the Gulf of Mexico, drenching western Cuba and causing heavy rain, gusty winds and rough seas in South Florida. A Russian exchange student died after she was pulled from the rolling waves off Miami Beach early Friday, officials said.
Severe weather concerns were not limited to just those areas in Arlene's direct path. A tornado watch was issued for a huge swath of the Gulf region, stretching from 50 miles south-southwest of Orlando, Fla., to 45 miles northwest of Dothan, Ala. The tornadoes could be accompanied by thunder, lightning, half-inch hail and 70 mph gusts.
Plus, drenching rains were expected over much of the peninsula throughout the day.
At least eight shelters opened, although officials in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties said only a few dozen people checked in by early Saturday.
Escambia County's voluntary evacuation included parts of Pensacola and covered up to 50,000 people. Santa Rosa and Walton County also asked for evacuations in flood-prone areas but had no estimates of how many people they covered.
David Johanson, a retired engineer, said he was only "reasonably sure" the trailer he got from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, parked in front of his damaged Pensacola Beach home, would survive a direct hit from Arlene.
"If that thing goes over," Johanson, 72, said, "I'm not going to be in it."The hurricane season began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.
Last year, the first storm of the season, Alex, didn't form until Aug. 1. Two weeks later, Florida was hit by the first of four hurricanes in the space of a few weeks. They caused about 130 deaths in the U.S. and $22 billion in insured wind damage.