PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — Brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, Tropical Storm Claudette was bringing heavy rain to the Florida Panhandle on Sunday, likely becoming the first tropical storm to strike the U.S. mainland this year.
Claudette had winds of at least 50 mph but was not expected to cause significant flooding or wind damage. Lurking more ominously was Tropical Storm Bill, which was quickly turning into a powerful storm over warm waters in the open Atlantic with sustained winds of 65 mph. Ana, a tropical storm that had also been churning in the Atlantic, had weakened to a depression.
Skies clouded and bands of intermittent heavy rain moved on shore ahead of the storm, but the Panhandle was largely calm.
Condominiums on Pensacola Beach warned residents to bring balcony furniture indoors with winds anticipated to strengten throughout the evening. A trickle of cars and SUVs with surfboards on top headed east along the Panhandle as surfers hoped to catch waves whipped up by Claudette.
On Pensacola Beach, the National Park Service closed low-lying roads that connect the restaurants and hotels to the undeveloped National Seashore and historic Fort Pickens Fort. The Park Service said campers would be ordered to leave the area because of the likelihood of the road flooding.
Rainfall of 3 to 6 inches was expected, with isolated areas getting up to 10 inches along the Panhandle, the Big Bend region, central and southern Alabama and extreme southwestern Georgia, forecasters said.
"We may see some heavy rains as a result, but we don't expect any high winds or coastal flooding," said John Dosh, manager of Emergency Management. "This event is a good example of how quickly a tropical storm can develop. We won't always have a lot of warning. This is why citizens need to be prepared throughout hurricane season."
In Panama City, the Bay County Emergency Operations Center opened a shelter at a local high school for residents of low-lying areas and people with special needs.
A tropical storm warning covers most of the Panhandle, from the Alabama state line to the Suwanee River more than 300 miles to the east.
The storm tide is expected to produce maximum water levels of 3 to 5 feet above ground level along portions of the Panhandle.
Alexander Hanrahan, a tourist from London, watched Claudette roll in on Pensacola. He said his family feared the storm after watching the television in their beach-front condominum.
"We were actually deliberating whether to get out on the road, but when we got out it was nothing. My mom was nervous because she's not used to driving here anyway," Hanrahan said.
Pensacola Beach is still recovering from Hurricane Ivan, which devastated the western Florida Panhandle and parts of Alabama in 2004.
At 8 p.m. EDT, Claudette was about 55 miles west of Apalachicola and moving northwest near 12 mph. Its center was expected to move onshore along the northern Gulf Coast by Monday.
Meanwhile, Ana's winds had diminished to 35 mph and was expected to make landfall at the Leeward Islands early Monday. Watches were posted for Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Antigua, St. Maarten and several other islands in the area. Ana was forecast to bring 2 to 4 inches of rain.
Tropical Storm Bill, however, was intensifying far from land in the open Atlantic, and could become a hurricane late Sunday or on Monday.
In the Pacific, Hurricane Guillermo had winds that had dropped to 85 mph, and it was expected to lose steam in the next day. Guillermo was moving west at 14 mph, about 995 miles east of Hilo, Hawaii, and didn't threaten any land.
Despite the storms, a warmer weather pattern called El Nino over the Pacific Ocean is generally expected to damper the formation of tropical storms in the Caribbean and Atlantic this year, said Brian Daly, a meteorologist with the national weather service in Mobile, Ala.
"It's pretty frequent that an El Nino year would be somewhat delayed with fewer storms," Daly said.
Forecasters revised their Atlantic hurricane season predictions after the first two months of the season passed without any named storms developing.
Contributing: Associated Press writer Desiree Hunter in Atlanta