Beryl expected to dump rain along southeast coast

May 29, 2012 - 11:25 AM
NOAA CLOUDS

This NOAA satellite image taken Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 07:45 AM EDT shows clouds over Florida and Georgia associated with Tropical Depression Beryl as it will slowly move northeastward and into the Atlantic Ocean the next few days. Areas of heavy rain and thunderstorms can continue to be expected. (AP Photo/Weather Underground)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The former tropical storm Beryl was expected to bring up to 10 inches of rain to parts of the southeast coast before it heads out to sea again, where it could regain some strength.

Forecasters said Beryl, downgraded to a tropical depression after losing wind strength Monday, could dump up to 4 inches of rain in coastal South Carolina, where a flash flood warning was in place. Southeast Georgia and northern Florida could get as much as 10 inches.

Meteorologist Brett Cimbora of the National Weather Service in Charleston, S.C., said the risk of flash floods was greater because much of the area has been dry and sudden rain could run off the hard soil instead of soaking into the ground.

Meanwhile, with the official start of hurricane season coming Friday, U.S. officials are reviewing their disaster plans — especially since a tropical storm already swept ashore this week.

While Beryl, which hit as a tropical storm, left little damage after making landfall with 70 mph winds early Monday at Jacksonville, Fla., it gave the city the chance to put its natural disaster plans to the test.

"You can call it a dry run, but we were prepared," Mayor Alvin Brown said.

The city will assess the damage before deciding how much federal and state aid to seek, Brown said. About 20,000 customers remained without electricity in the city Monday evening.

Although the Atlantic's six-month storm season officially begins Friday, the season got off to an early start with Tropical Storm Alberto forming earlier in the month off the coast of South Carolina.

Then Beryl swept ashore. Beach trips, backyard barbecues and graveside Memorial Day observances got a good soaking in southeastern Georgia and northern Florida.

Jacksonville, because of its location on an inward curve in the Florida coast, rarely takes a direct hit from a tropical storm or hurricane.

"I hope this is not a sign of things to come," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. "It's quite unusual, if you look at the history of the tracks of hurricanes, that you would have one come straight into Jacksonville from the Atlantic. ... Normally the hurricanes are forming out in the Atlantic and as they come toward the coast of the United States, the Gulfstream has a tendency to turn them north."

By Tuesday morning, Beryl had maximum sustained winds of 30 mph (45 kph). It was centered about 115 miles (185 kilometers) west-southwest of Savannah and was moving northeast near 5 mph (7 kph).

The National Hurricane Center in Miami says the depression's center was expected to near the South Carolina coast by Wednesday morning, then veer back over the Atlantic where it could regain tropical storm strength.

Joyce Connolly and her daughters left their home in Hurricane, W.Va., to head south for a Memorial Day vacation in to Jacksonville Beach, Fla. — and ended up in the center of Tropical Storm Beryl.

The storm wrecked much of Connolly's trip. She skipped a graduation ceremony because powerful winds kept her and her daughters from venturing past the beach boardwalk when the storm approached Sunday. She also postponed their drive home Monday as Beryl, downgraded to a tropical depression, continued to dump rain near the Georgia-Florida state line.

"It definitely changed our vacation to unfortunate circumstances that we're not happy with. But you just have to live with it," said Connolly, who at least found the irony of her hometown's name "pretty funny."

Beach lifeguards turned swimmers away from the ocean because of dangerous rip currents from Jacksonville to Tybee Island, Georgia's largest public beach 140 miles to the north. Skip Sasser, who oversees the island's lifeguards as its fire chief, said beach traffic was unusually thin for a holiday. The ocean was declared off-limits to swimmers for a second day in a row.

"It's been raining intermittently, so it's chased a lot of them off," Sasser said. "There was a lot of traffic this morning heading westbound out of Tybee."

Veterans groups, meanwhile, carried out outdoor Memorial Day ceremonies despite the grim forecast.

At Savannah's historic Bonaventure Cemetery — made famous by the book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" — American Legion members worked through a downpour to make sure its plot for veterans had a small American flag planted by each headstone.

"When we were setting up, I had a different shirt on and I got soaked to the skin. My socks and my underwear probably are, too," said Jim Grismer, commander of American Legion Post 135 in Savannah. "I had so many people trying to talk me into moving it inside. But I said then you can't have the live firing salute and the flag raising."

Aside from ruining holiday plans, the rain was welcome on the Georgia coast for bringing some relief from persistent drought. According to the state climatologist's office, as of May 1, rainfall in Savannah was 15 inches below normal for the past 12 months.

Emergency officials said minor flooding was reported near the coast, but the ground was quickly soaking up the water. And the winds had died down considerably.

"We've needed it for a long time," said Ray Parker, emergency management director for coastal McIntosh County south of Savannah, who said the worst damage came by trees falling on two homes overnight. "We were lucky that we didn't get 3 to 4 inches in 30 minutes. Most of it soaked right in before it had a chance to run off. It fell on an empty sponge."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said much progress was made repairing Beryl's damage, including removing trees and restoring power to homes and businesses.

"We're very fortunate this did not become a hurricane," he said. "If it had been a couple of months later, we could have had a Category 3 hurricane."

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Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay in Miami and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.