OKALOOSA ISLAND — Subtropical Storm Alberto's approach to the Florida Panhandle apparently hasn't scared many tourists away this Memorial Day weekend.
With gray clouds looming over Okaloosa Island and yellow flags flying on the beach, people gathered Saturday afternoon to enjoy the sand and water.
“We didn’t need to cancel,” said Leigh Ann Vo, who traveled from Memphis, Tennessee, with her husband, Peter. They own a summer home on Okaloosa Island and spent their Saturday afternoon enjoying the beach.
“We keep hearing that it’s going to be bad, but I don’t see it,” Peter said. “Even if it was, we’d be out on the beach with our rain boots on.”
That was before a heavy squall rolled in shortly before 4 p.m.
Meanwhile, officials along the Gulf Coast launched emergency preparations Saturday as Alberto pounded Cuba's western coast, raising the threat of flash floods and mudslides. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the island's rain totals could reach 10 to 15 inches, and even 25 inches in isolated areas.
Heavy downpours were expected to begin lashing parts of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Sunday. The Florida Keys could see as much as 10 inches of rain, the Hurricane Center said. Tropical storm warnings also have been issued for parts of Florida and Alabama.
About 5 to 10 inches rain are possible along affected areas in eastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle. Isolated areas could see as much as 15 inches.
Hotels along the Emerald Coast were seeing some cancellations, but not many.
Associates at the Ramada Plaza Beach Resort said a few people had backed out for the weekend, but most kept their reservations.
Damita Bridges, front desk associate at the Best Western on Okaloosa Island, said less than half of guests had canceled their weekend reservations.
“People are coming to ride out the storm,” Bridges said. “We have plenty of activities to do if it rains.”
Alberto — the first named storm of the 2018 hurricane season that officially starts June 1 — is expected to strengthen until it reaches the northern Gulf Coast, likely on Monday night.
The National Weather Service said waves as high as 18 feet could pound the popular beaches in Baldwin County, Alabama, and northwestern Florida on Monday. A high surf warning was in effect through 7 p.m. Tuesday local time.
At 4 p.m. CDT Saturday, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Alberto was about 95 miles north of the western tip of Cuba and moving north at 13 mph. The storm had top sustained winds of 40 mph was expected to strengthen as it moves over the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
A subtropical storm like Alberto has a less defined and cooler center than a tropical storm, and its strongest winds are found farther from its center. Subtropical storms can develop into tropical storms, which in turn can strengthen into hurricanes.
As of Saturday afternoon, officials in Okaloosa and Walton counties were still monitoring the storm but hadn’t changed their preparation plans.
According to Santa Rosa County spokeswoman Brandi Whitehurst, the county will activate a Level 2 emergency at noon Sunday. All key personnel from agencies like the School Board, Health Department and Sheriff’s Office will be on standby.
“We’re not going to go to Level 1 at this point,” Whitehurst said. “We’ll make a call for Level 1 later if needed.”
The rain that swept through the area late Saturday afternoon technically was not related to Alberto, according to the National Weather Service in Mobile, Alabama.
“To say (the storms are) associated with Alberto is probably a bit of a stretch,” Meteorologist Ryan Rogers said. “We’re dealing with an upper-level trough over the Gulf of Mexico that is kind of helping things storm-wise over the last few days, and that’s continuing. The fact that we have Alberto getting a little closer, I can understand why a connection would want to be made.
“But for the most part, the storms associated with Alberto extend off to the north, and especially to the east, of the newer center of circulation down between Cuba and the Yucatan.”
According to Rogers, Sunday should continue the same pattern with showers and thunderstorms throughout the day and potentially into Monday, and then rain more closely associated to Alberto will make their way to dampen Memorial Day.
The downpours could dampen the holiday, the unofficial start of the summer tourist season along Gulf beaches. Along with heavy rains and high winds come rough seas and a threat of rip currents from Florida to Louisiana that can sweep swimmers out to sea.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.