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Friday July 31st, 2015 11:38PM

US officials assess storm preparations after Beryl

By The Associated Press
SAVANNAH - 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 Tropical Storm Beryl left little damage after making landfall with 70 mph winds around midnight Sunday 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 early Tuesday, Beryl, which had weakened to a tropical depression, had maximum sustained winds near 30 mph (45 kph). It was centered about 10 miles (15 kilometers) northwest of Valdosta, Ga., and was moving north near 2 mph (4 kph).

The rainfall stopped in Savannah, Ga., and other northern parts of the Georgia coast Monday afternoon, but more was expected through Tuesday. A frontal system moving south from the Great Lakes is expected to cause the storm do a U-turn and push it back out to sea.

Beryl was expected to bring up to 10 inches of rain to parts of northern Florida to southeastern North Carolina, with some areas getting as much as a foot and a half, 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 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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