PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. – Tropical Storm Arlene (search) drenched Cuba and parts of Florida on Friday, gaining strength and speed as its center moved north toward the U.S. Gulf Coast — a region still recovering from last year's hurricanes.
Forecasters said Arlene, the Atlantic hurricane season's first named tropical storm, could become a weak hurricane before hitting the Deep South (search) late Saturday, with the worst weather arriving earlier, east of the storm's center.
Arlene was then expected to move along the Mississippi-Alabama (search) line, reaching Tennessee by Sunday afternoon.
Tropical storm warnings and hurricane watches were posted from Florida to Louisiana, including New Orleans, as top sustained winds reached 60 mph, up from 45 mph earlier in the day.
The wind speed was likely to increase, but forecasters said the biggest impact would be heavy rain.
Mississippi officials urged residents in flood-prone areas to move to higher ground, and two large deepwater oil platforms off the Louisiana coast were evacuated.
In Pensacola Beach, where many residents are still living in government trailers because of damage from last year's Hurricane Ivan, residents eyed the forecast warily.
Margie Wassner, 57, said she planned to ride out Arlene with friends inland in Pensacola.
"It's pretty scary to me. I just kept hoping that we wouldn't have anything, but I don't know. It's awfully early in the year to be having this," she said.
The downpour that landed on Havana and the rest of western Cuba as Arlene passed the island's westernmost tip early Friday was welcome relief from the island's severe drought.
Flooding was possible, meteorologists said, and some schools were closed, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injury.
Southern and central Florida could see tornadoes Friday and more than 7 inches of rain by midday Saturday. Beach erosion was also possible, with coastal storm surge flooding of 2 to 4 feet above normal tide levels.
"This is going to be a major rainfall event before and ahead of the storm," said Trisha Wallace, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center.
At 2 p.m. EDT, Arlene's poorly defined center was about 375 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The storm was moving north at about 13 mph, picking up speed from its 10 mph pace earlier in the day, the hurricane center in Miami said.
Wind and rain extended 150 miles north and east of the storm's center.
Ahead of the storm, steady rainfall and squalls began to hit Florida.
Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters in Jacksonville that the state and its residents were prepared, saying he was encouraged by "phenomenal" sales of generators and hurricane-related materials.
"This is a good sign that people are taking this very seriously," Bush said.
The tropical storm warning stretched along the northern Gulf Coast from Grand Isle, La., to St. Marks, Fla., including New Orleans. The hurricane watch went from the mouth of the Pearl River to Panama City, Fla.
A tropical storm warning was also in effect for the Dry Tortugas, a cluster of islands about 70 miles west of Key West that are a U.S. national park.
A warning means storm conditions are expected within 24 hours. A watch means they are possible, generally within 36 hours.
The Panhandle was battered last year by Ivan, one of the four hurricanes to strike Florida within a few weeks. State meteorologist Ben Nelson warned coastal residents that flooding patterns could be different now because Ivan changed dunes and offshore structures.
Hurricane season began June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Besides Ivan, Florida was struck by Charley, Frances and Jeanne. The storms caused about 130 deaths in the United States and are blamed for $22 billion in insured damage.