Tropical Storm Heads Toward Gulf Coast

The Atlantic hurricane season's first named storm headed north Thursday toward the Gulf Coast (search) as Florida residents, still recovering from last year's devastation, watched with a wary eye.

Tropical Storm Arlene (search), which strengthened from a tropical depression that formed Wednesday, was centered 150 miles south-southeast of the western tip of Cuba at 2 p.m. EDT. It was moving north at about 8 mph, meaning parts of the Florida Keys could start getting rain late Thursday, forecasters said.

Arlene had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph and was, at least for now, mostly a rain threat, forecasters said. It was expected to enter the Gulf of Mexico by Friday — a path that prompted authorities to warn residents of coastal communities to beware.

"Our best estimate of the track possibilities are that anywhere from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle could expect the center to be approaching them by the middle of the weekend," said National Hurricane Center (search) specialist Richard Knabb.

Panhandle residents were told to prepare for possible heavy rain and flooding this weekend.

Sitting outside his temporary mobile home, 69-year-old retiree Jim Milliken monitored the forecasts and hoped the bad luck that cost him his house had finally run its course.

"I have to assume the probabilities are in my favor and it's not going to be a really big, bad thing this time," he said.

Hurricane season began June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Last season, Florida was struck by hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne; between them, the four storms damaged one out of every five homes in the state. The storms caused about 130 deaths in the United States and are blamed for $22 billion in insured damage.

Forecasters said Arlene was likely to remain a tropical storm, but Navy meteorologist Lt. Dave Roberts said there was an "outside shot" the system could develop into a weak hurricane.

The storm was already causing heavy rain and squalls across the Cayman Islands and western and central Cuba. Forecasters warned that very heavy rains in Nicaragua and Honduras could cause flash floods and mud slides.