for National Geographic News
Tropical Storm Alberto, the first named storm of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, could strike Florida late Tuesday or early Wednesday as a minimal hurricane with winds of at least 74 miles (80 kilometers) an hour.
As of 10 a.m. eastern time today the storm's center was in the Gulf of Mexico, about 190 miles (300 kilometers) south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida (see a map of Florida).
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami have issued hurricane warnings for Florida's Big Bend areathe northern portion of the west coast as it curves from the peninsula to the Florida Panhandle.
The storm had encountered high-level winds, known as shear, that had impeded its development and scattered its winds.
But NHC forecaster Michael Brennan said that a U.S. Air Force Reserve reconnaissance flight into the storm this morning discovered that Alberto had strengthened and now had peak sustained winds of 70 miles (113 kilomters) an hour.
A tropical storm becomes a hurricane when its winds reach 74 miles (119 kilometers) an hour. Alberto could reach that point within 24 hours, forecasters say.
Brennan said the unexpected strengthening probably took place when Alberto moved over the Gulf of Mexico's Loop Current, which contains deeper, warmer water. Tropical storms draw their strength from seawater that has been warmed to at least 80º Fahrenheit (27º Celsius).
Brennan cautioned that Florida residents shouldn't become too focused on Alberto's center.
"For this storm more than most, the exact track of the center is not as important as it is with most storms," Brennan said.
"The effects will be widespread, with tropical storm-force winds extending 230 miles [370 kilometers] from the northeast and southeast. Large areas away from the center will experience tropical storm conditions."
Tropical storm conditions exist when winds of at least 39 miles (63 kilometers) an hour are present.
The storm has already dumped nearly 2 feet (61 centimeters) of rain on Cuba.
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