FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A strengthening Tropical Storm Alberto was forecast to strike Florida's upper Gulf Coast today as a minimal hurricane with 75 mph winds, pounding rain and a 10-foot storm surge, forcing the evacuation of more than 20,000 residents.
If so, it would be the earliest hurricane to strike the state in 40 years, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
With the projected track taking the storm's center about 130 miles north of Tampa, residents of five rural counties in the Big Bend area were ordered yesterday to evacuate, 12 days into the hurricane season.
Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, putting the National Guard on alert and laws against price-gouging into effect.
"We're talking about powerful forces of nature," Bush said. "People need to take this very seriously."
FEMA said yesterday that it had evacuation buses and emergency supplies standing by, but state officials in the affected areas had not asked for immediate help.
Areas directly in the storm's path could see up to 10 inches of rain, officials said.
"It's not a Katrina or a Wilma, but storm surge and flooding could still cause loss of life," warned Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.
A hurricane warning was posted for the Gulf Coast and a tropical storm warning was issued from north of Daytona Beach to the Georgia-South Carolina line. Alberto, which could begin battering the Gulf Coast early today, was expected to cross Florida and into Georgia.
At 11 p.m., Alberto was centered about 95 miles south-southeast of Apalachicola and about 105 miles west-southwest of Cedar Key, and was moving northeast near 10 mph, the hurricane center said. Top sustained winds remained at 70 mph, just shy of hurricane strength.
The system had been classified as a tropical depression a day earlier, but was fortified by warm water in the Gulf of Mexico and a burst of thunderstorm activity, forecasters said.
The storm was expected to blow ashore anywhere from north of Tampa to the Panhandle, with storm surges of up to 10 feet. Forecasters said it could bring 4 to 10 inches of rain to Central Florida and southeastern Georgia. Rain already was falling yesterday and at least two tornadoes had formed, but there were no immediate reports of any injuries or damage
"It's the storm surge that will be a problem," said Stanley Bair, owner of the Island Hotel, built in 1859 on Cedar Key, just off Florida's Big Bend. "It won't get into the hotel, but it will surround it, and people won't be able to get on or off the island."
Many in coastal Florida made early preparations for the storm. At a St. Petersburg marina, workers secured 610 boats.
"This is a little earlier than I expected," said Walter Miller, the marina's manager. "But we've had a bad couple of years, so it's not entirely unexpected."
Alberto prevented the crew of the space shuttle Discovery from flying to the Kennedy Space Center from Houston for several days of dress rehearsals for their expected launch in July.
Alberto was predicted to weaken to a tropical storm when it hits the coast. It was forecast to cross southern Georgia and the Carolinas before emerging in the Atlantic as a depression on Thursday.
If Alberto strikes as a hurricane, it would be the second earliest to hit Florida behind Hurricane Alma, which pounded the Panhandle east of Apalachicola on June 9, 1966, said Colin McAdie, a research meteorologist at the hurricane center. Alma, a Category 1 system with 90 mph winds, killed six people.
Other June hurricanes to hit Florida include Agnes, which hit the Panhandle west of Apalachicola on June 19, 1972, and an unnamed hurricane that raked southeastern Florida on June 17, 1906, McAdie said.
All were spawned in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico and moved north toward Florida.
The six-month hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30, is expected to be another unusually active one.
The federal government's official outlook calls for 13 to 16 tropical storms that would become eight to 10 hurricanes, including four to six intense hurricanes with winds above 110 mph. Government experts expect two to four hurricanes to hit the United States this year.
Ken Kaye and Mark Hollis write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Wire services contributed to this article.