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Storm barrels toward Deep South

Strengthening Arlene soaks parts of Florida

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. -- A strengthening Tropical Storm Arlene dumped rain on much of Florida as its center moved toward the northern Gulf Coast yesterday, stirring memories of last year's devastating hurricane season.

Forecasters said Arlene, the Atlantic hurricane season's first named tropical storm, could become a weak hurricane before making landfall in the Deep South late today. Arlene is then expected to move northward along the Mississippi- Alabama line, possibly reaching Tennessee by tomorrow afternoon.

Tropical storm warnings and hurricane watches were posted from Florida's Panhandle to Louisiana's southeastern tip, as Arlene's top sustained winds reached 70 miles per hour, up from 45 miles per hour earlier in the day. The wind speed was likely to increase, but forecasters said the biggest impact would be heavy rain.

Arlene would become a hurricane if its sustained winds hit 74 miles per hour.

In the Florida Panhandle, the Coast Guard rescued five crew members of a fishing trawler that was taking on water in 12-foot seas off Cape San Blas. A Russian exchange student died after being pulled from the waves off Miami Beach, officials said.

Residents in flood-prone areas were urged to move to higher ground. Several western Panhandle counties urged tens of thousands of people to leave. In the vulnerable marshes south of New Orleans, bulldozers were moved into place in case water from a storm surge broke through a levee.

In Pensacola Beach, where many residents are still living in government trailers because of damage from last year's Hurricane Ivan, residents eyed the forecast warily.

Margie Wassner, 57, said she planned to ride out Arlene with friends inland in Pensacola.

''It's pretty scary to me," she said. ''It's awfully early in the year to be having this."

Arlene passed Cuba's westernmost tip early yesterday, bringing heavy rain, gusty winds, and rough seas to the region.

The Florida Panhandle was battered last year by Ivan, one of the four hurricanes to strike the state within a few weeks. Hurricane season began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

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