JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - With the official start of hurricane season coming Friday, U.S. officials are reviewing their disaster plans -- especially with the lessons of the strongest tropical storm ever to come ashore in May fresh in their minds.
While Tropical Storm Beryl left little major damage after making landfall with 70 mph winds around midnight Sunday at Jacksonville Beach, 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 350 trees were down in the city, and lots of power lines. Nearly 40,000 homes and businesses were initially without power, but the JEA had that number down to about 3,000 by Tuesday morning.
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 Memorial Day observances got a good soaking across northeast Florida and southeastern Georgia.
Jacksonville, because of its location on an inward curve in the Florida coast, hasn't taken a direct hit from a tropical storm or hurricane since Hurricane Dora in 1964.
"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."
By early Tuesday, Beryl, which had weakened to a tropical depression, had maximum sustained winds near 30 mph. It was centered about 10 miles northwest of Valdosta, Ga., and was moving north near 2 mph, although it was expected to pick up speed and head to the northeast, returning to the Atlantic Ocean from South Carolina late Wednesday.
Beryl dropped 10 or more inches of rain over parts of north Florida and was expected to bring several inches of rain as far north as southeastern North Carolina, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Monday night. Forecasters said Beryl is expected to produce up to six inches of rain in eastern North Carolina and South Carolina.
Joyce Connolly and her daughters left their home in Hurricane, W.Va., to head south for a Memorial Day beach vacation 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 Daytona Beach to Tybee Island, Georgia's largest public beach.
Aside from postponing Memorial Day observances and ruining holiday plans, the rain was brought some relief from persistent drought in the area.
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, 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 Go. 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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