PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) - Residents of the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama braced for drenching rainfall and the possibility of flooding Sunday as Tropical Storm Barry headed for land, slowly gaining strength as it plowed across the Gulf of Mexico.
The storm was not expected to reach hurricane strength before making landfall early Monday, although a hurricane warning remained posted late Sunday for the Gulf Coast, extending from Pensacola eastward to the Ochlockonee River, south of Tallahassee, the National Hurricane Center said. Earlier in the day the warning had extended into Mississippi.
''There's still a chance Barry could become a hurricane, but it's not likely,'' said Martin Nelson, the center's lead forecaster.
The storm's peak sustained wind speed increased during the day to about 70 mph. A tropical storm is redesignated a hurricane when its sustained wind speed reaches 74 mph.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush urged residents in the panhandle to heed the storm warnings.
''The possibility of flooding and isolated tornadoes are where we have the most concern,'' Bush said. ''Barry remains a strong tropical storm that could cause serious damage.''
Air Force officials said nearly 40 C-130 cargo aircraft and about 300 personnel from Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach, Fla., were sent Sunday to Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas to get them out of the storm's expected path.
Meteorologists expected 8 to 10 inches of rain across the Florida Panhandle and said isolated tornadoes were possible. Barry already had dumped more than a foot of rain on parts of southern Florida when it crossed the state last week on its way into the Gulf of Mexico.
A flood watch was in effect through Monday for southeast Alabama, and southwest and south-central Georgia.
Along Florida's panhandle, some residents enjoyed the rough seas along the coast's sandy beaches while others prepared for flooding.
''I'm not that worried. You live out here and you know it's going to happen,'' said Stephanie Taylor, 36, who walked hand-in-hand with her boyfriend near the shore on Pensacola Beach. Red flags waved along the beach to warn against swimming.
At Fort Walton Beach, a solid gray blanket of clouds covered the sky and white surf pounded the beaches. Only a handful of people walked along the beach while a group of surfers took advantage of the strong waves.
''Just came to check out the waves. They look pretty good,'' said Don Ory, a marina owner. ''I wish I was out there ... just riding them on a boogie board or a jet ski would be nice.''
Several panhandle counties recommended evacuation and opened shelters. Franklin County ordered a mandatory evacuation for three islands.
''We've battened down the hatches pretty good here,'' said Don Chinery, a spokesman for Santa Rosa County, which had opened one shelter.
''Even if the storm does not reach hurricane status, the heavy rains that come with a tropical storm are something to be wary of,'' said Orange Beach, Ala., Fire Chief Mickey Robinson. ''Our ground is already pretty saturated from the rain we had this week, so we'll have to watch all the low areas for flooding.''
Near Destin, Fla., close to where the storm was expected to strike, thousands of shoppers packed an outlet mall to take advantage of the last day of the state's annual tax-free shopping period. Sporadic light rain fell in the afternoon.
''I don't care if it's a storm or what,'' said shopper David Miller, 37. ''Today's the day to shop.''
Beachgoers on the Alabama coast were warned to stay out of the water because of the churning surf and rip tides. Aided by a northeasterly wind and a full moon, Barry already had churned up six- and eight-foot waves along the state's shoreline.
At 11 p.m. EDT, the center of Barry was about 35 miles west-southwest of Panama City Beach. Barry was moving toward the north at 8 mph and forecasters expected a gradual increase in forward speed. Tropical storm force winds extended outward 140 miles from the center.
Barry is the second named storm of the 2001 Atlantic hurricane season.
In June, Tropical Storm Allison dumped 20 inches of rain in Louisiana and 32 in Texas, much of it as the storm sat for days off the coast. What was left of the storm then moved east and north, causing floods as far north as Pennsylvania.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov