Though it wasn't as nasty as anticipated, Tropical Storm Arlene took a squally swipe at South Florida yesterday and promised more soggy conditions through tomorrow, forecasters said.
But the big, messy system is apparently saving its worst for the north Gulf Coast, threatening to strike either dead-on or extremely near Pensacola, much of which Hurricane Ivan left in ruins in September.
The storm was forecast to make landfall about 1 p.m. today, after churning through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, possibly as a hurricane.
The good news: While Arlene could cause coastal flooding, it was not expected to have much of a destructive punch.
Just the same, residents of the area, hundreds still living in temporary housing, girded yesterday, buying supplies and fortifying their properties.
Escambia County officials urged residents in low-lying areas to evacuate. Six hurricane shelters were opened across the Florida Panhandle
In Pensacola Beach, Margie Wassner, 57, stood on the lot where her house once stood, destroyed by Ivan. She planned to ride out Arlene with friends farther inland.
"It's pretty scary to me," she said. "It's awfully early in the year to be having this."
Even before the storm hit, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist warned residents yesterday to hire only reputable businesses to make repairs or clean up from storm damage, and mobilized a toll-free hot line for consumer complaints about price gouging.
Arlene stepped up its forward speed last night, moving north at 17 mph.
The system was forecast to make landfall with sustained winds of about 69 mph, which would be 5 mph shy of hurricane strength.
A hurricane watch was posted from the Mississippi-Louisiana border to near Apalachicola, on the Florida Panhandle.
The system has brought torrential rains to western Cuba, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica.
In South Florida, Arlene for the most part made for a gray, dreary day with intermittent downpours and gusty winds.
It left large puddles in roadways and knocked down tree limbs, but it didn't deliver the severe thunderstorms - and possible tornadoes - initially feared.
The storm might have played a role in one casualty: A Russian exchange student, identified as Anna Smirnova, 20, was pulled from the rough waves off Miami Beach without a pulse early yesterday and later pronounced dead at a hospital, police said.
A second young woman, who tried to rescue the student, was also pulled out of the ocean and was later listed in stable condition.
The National Hurricane Center warned residents of the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Florida, that the fringes of the system would start bringing rain, winds and pounding waves well before the core arrives on shore.
State officials predict that the worst problem from the storm will be storm surge and flooding.
Although the surge will likely not exceed 5 feet, there is little to stop the water from flooding inland because Hurricane Ivan destroyed the Panhandle's dunes last year.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.