MIAMI – A tropical depression that formed Saturday in the Caribbean Sea was the first of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, which scientists predict could produce up to 16 named storms, six of them major hurricanes.
The depression was expected to become the year's first named storm — Alberto — as it veers toward Florida but was not expected to become a hurricane.
"It will be relatively weak in terms of wind, but that doesn't mean it's going to be weak in terms of rainfall," senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart said.
Last year's hurricane season was the busiest and most destructive in recorded history. Hurricane Katrina alone devastated Louisiana and Mississippi and was blamed for more than 1,570 deaths in Louisiana alone.
The depression that formed Saturday, nine days after the official start of the season, had maximum sustained winds near 35 mph, just below the 39-mph threshold for a tropical storm, according to the National Hurricane Center.
At 2 p.m. EDT, the poorly organized depression was centered in the Caribbean Sea about 45 miles west of Cabo San Antonio on the western tip of Cuba, forecasters said. It was moving north-northwest near 9 mph.
The hurricane center recommended tropical storm warnings for the Cuban provinces of Pinar Del Rio and the Isle of Youth.
Over the next three days, the system was expected to move through the Yucatan Channel into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, then toward Florida where it could make landfall Monday or Tuesday somewhere between South Florida and the western tip of the Panhandle, forecasters said.
State officials pleaded with residents to update their hurricane preparedness plans but most shrugged at the news that stormy weather was coming their way.
"The media overplays this, they get people very scared," said Tim Roberts, a Fort Lauderdale condo owner who was visiting Tallahassee. "Sure, when the time comes to be alarmed, yes, but don't make more out of it until it's time."
Mike Martino lost his Navarre Beach home twice in the past two hurricane seasons — first to Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and never got to move into a new home built on the same lot because Hurricane Dennis wiped it out in 2005. Instead of rebuilding again, he moved to the mainland.
Martino, who rents kayaks, bikes and surfboards out of his store in Navarre Beach, worried that the weather would do more economic damage than property damage.
"I know that we have weather coming, so I can't have weekly rentals, it's all going to have to be done by the day," he said.
The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was the busiest in 154 years of storm tracking, with records set for the number of named storms (28) and hurricanes (15). Forecasters used up their list of 21 proper names (beginning with Arlene and ending with Wilma) and had to use the Greek alphabet to name storms for the first time.
Meteorologists have said the Atlantic is not as warm as it was at this time in 2005, meaning potential storms would have less of the energy needed to develop into hurricanes.
Atlantic hurricane seasons were relatively mild from the 1970s through 1994. Since then, all but two years have been above normal. Experts say the ocean is in the midst of a 20-year-cycle that will continue to bring strong storms.
Between 1995 and 2005, the Atlantic season has averaged 15 named storms, just over eight named hurricanes and four major hurricanes, according to the hurricane center. From 1971 to 1994, there were an average of 8.5 named storms, five hurricanes and just over one major hurricane. The Atlantic hurricane season ends Nov. 30.