PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. – Tropical Storm Arlene (search) weakened as it blew ashore Saturday on the Gulf Coast, but still packed enough punch that it brought sheets of rain, 20-foot waves and heavy wind to the same area that was devastated by Hurricane Ivan nine months ago.
The first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season had threatened to strengthen to a hurricane but had sustained wind of only about 60 mph when it made landfall at around 3 p.m., just west of Pensacola (search).
Arlene came ashore a bit east of where Ivan hit with 120-mph wind on Sept. 16. Ivan, blamed for 29 deaths in Florida, was one of four hurricanes to batter Florida last summer in the space of weeks.
"This is nothing like the thing we had last year," said Kris Davis, a waitress at McGuire's Irish Pub in coastal Destin (search).
Initial damage reports were minimal; about 11,300 homes and businesses on the Gulf Coast were without power Saturday evening. A few Panhandle bridges were closed because of wind, and some flooding on Alabama's coastal highways was reported.
There were no immediate reports of deaths blamed on the storm Saturday, but one woman died Friday after being pulled from strong surf on Miami Beach, more than 500 miles southeast of the landfall point.
Arlene later weakened to a tropical depression with top sustained winds of 35 mph and was centered about 15 miles east of Jackson, Ala., at 8 p.m. EDT. Meteorologists said flooding and up to 6 inches of rain was possible in the path of Arlene's remnants through the Mississippi River valley, but all hurricane and tropical storm warnings were lifted.
Many feared that Arlene would set back the efforts to rebuild homes damaged by Ivan. Numerous homes in the region are still under repair, with flimsy plastic tarps still serving as roofing on many houses.
"It looks like we're going to come out a lot better than what was first expected or forecast," said Jerry Henderson, a spokesman for the Santa Rosa County sheriff's office in Florida's Panhandle.
While groups of spectators gathered on the shore to watch the hammering surf, a few surfers hit the 20-foot waves at Gulf Shores, Ala.
Gulf Shores Police Cpl. Bill Cowan ordered a group of about seven boys and men out of the waves, threatening them with arrest. "They didn't really know you could die doing that," Cowan said.
Bob Garcia checked into a Red Cross shelter at Gulf Shores with his son, Tommy. They live in a mobile home in Summerdale, Ala., and Bob Garcia said there was "no sense in taking chances" with the possibility of tornadoes developing as Arlene plowed ashore.
He was one of only 13 people in that shelter Saturday morning. Shelters were also largely empty in Florida; eight were open by midday Saturday but only 212 people checked in, state officials said. On the Mississippi coast, Jackson County opened one shelter and no one showed up, said Civil Defense Director Butch Loper.
The hurricane season began June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Last year's first storm of the season, Alex, didn't form until Aug. 1, and two weeks later Florida was hit by four straight deadly hurricanes. Those storms caused about 130 deaths in the United States and billions of dollars in damage.
Arlene reached the coast far below the minimum hurricane level -- 74 mph. Still, some suffered from frayed nerves as the storm neared.
"What do you expect when you live in a place like this, close to the beach?" asked Ronald Bowling, 34, who was among those sheltering at West Florida High School in Pensacola. "I am thinking about getting out of Pensacola."