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Stronger Andrea whirls toward Florida Gulf Coast

Tropical Storm Andrea, growing stronger overnight, headed toward landfall along Florida’s Big Bend area on Thursday, but much of the state already is feeling its effects.

The outer bands of the first named storm of the hurricane season dropped heavy rain from Miami to Melbourne, making for a miserable rush hour commute, and put much of the peninsula under a morning tornado watch.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said Andrea’s maximum sustained winds reached 60 mph but had probably peaked. The big threats remained rain, which could reach six inches along the Gulf Coast and in North Florida. Up to four feet of storm surge also could cause flooding in some coastal communities, especially south of the projected landfall.

From there, the storm is expected to stay just inland, dumping heavy rains across the Mid-Atlantic coast from Georgia to Virginia over the next few days as it is swept along by an approaching front.

Forecasters on Thursday morning issued a tropical storm warning for the U.S. East Coast as the storm approaches Florida.

In Southeast Florida, a steady drizzled was punctuated by powerful, fast-moving thunderstorms – conditions that forecasters expected to remain in place for most of the day before starting to taper off Friday.

Storms could still pop up during the weekend but would be mostly scattered, said Chuck Caracozza, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami-Dade. The service put the rain chance for Southeast Florida at 40 percent on Saturday, dropping to 30 percent by Sunday.

“It looks like more of your typical South Florida weekend,” he said.

Most experts say climate conditions are likely to once again churn out an above average number of storms and hurricanes. Federal forecasters predict from 13 to 20 named storms, with three to four possibly becoming major hurricanes of Category 3 or stronger. The historical average for named storms is a dozen a year.