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Tropical Storm Claudette hits Florida, seen fading

TROPICAL Storm Claudette, the third of the Atlantic hurricane season, moved ashore along the US Gulf coast early today, the US National Hurricane Center said.

Claudette, which formed early Sunday morning, hit the coast near the eastern end of Santa Rosa Island, just southeast of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, at 1:10 am EDT (0510 GMT), the hurricane center said.

The six-month Atlantic hurricane season got off to a slow start with no storms in the first 2-1/2 months but exploded this weekend as three formed in just over a day.

Claudette had swept through the Gulf of Mexico but bypassed the heaviest concentration of US energy platforms, which stretch along the coast from Mobile Bay, Alabama, to Brownsville, Texas.

The Gulf is home to almost half of US refinery capacity, a quarter of oil production and 15 percent of natural gas output. Oil companies were monitoring the storm but had not shut down production.

Claudette packed sustained winds of 50 miles per hour (80 kilometres per hour) as it hit the Florida panhandle. Its center will cross the western portion of the panhandle early today and swirl into southern Alabama later in the day, the Hurricane Center said.

A tropical storm warning was in effect from the Alabama/Florida border eastward to the Aucilla River in Florida. Claudette will likely weaken to a tropical depression over Alabama later today, forecasters said.

Early Monday, Tropical Storm Ana, which had faded to a tropical depression yesterday and was expected to weaken further, was west-northwest near 26 mph and was about 185 miles (300 kilometres) east-southeast of St. Croix.

It was expected to rain 2 to 4 inches over the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico and the US and British Virgin islands.

The bigger threat could come from Bill, which forecasters expected to whip up into a "major" Category 3 hurricane, with winds of more than 110 mph (177 kph), by Friday. Hurricanes of Category 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson intensity scale are the most destructive type.

Some computer models suggested Bill could reach Category 4, with winds of more than 130 mph (210 kph).

Bill's sustained winds increased on Sunday to 70 mph (115 kph), just short of hurricane strength. Early on Monday it was still 1,320 miles (2,125 km) east of the Lesser Antilles islands, forecasters said.

On its most likely track, Bill would be well north of the northernmost Caribbean islands, headed in the general direction of the US East Coast, striking by Friday, forecasters said.


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