Arlene, the first Atlantic tropical storm, picked up speed

Arlene, the first tropical storm of the 2005 Atlantic &to=http:// ' target=_blank>hurricane season, picked up speed Thursday in the northwest Caribbean and edged closer to western Cuba, where a tropical storm watch was in effect.

With maximum sustained winds reaching 40 mph, the system became the first named storm of the season just before 7 a.m. Thursday, according to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Tropical storms have top sustained winds of 39 mph to 74 mph. The Cuban government issued a tropical storm watch for the western province of Pinar Del Rio and the Isle of Youth. The storm is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend, forecasters said.

The storm was causing heavy rains and squalls across the &to=http:// ' target=_blank> Cayman Islands and western and central Cuba. Forecasters warned that very heavy rains in Nicaragua and Honduras could cause flash floods and mud slides, tells News 24.

Hurricane forecasters have predicted a very active summer for tropical storms in the Atlantic and Caribbean after 15 named storms spawned nine hurricanes last year.

Four of those hurricanes struck Florida in a six-week period and oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico was severely affected. Total damages in the United States in 2004 amounted to $45 billion and one storm, Jeanne, killed 3,000 people in Haiti.

For 2005, prominent researcher Professor William Gray of Colorado State University has predicted 15 storms, of which eight are likely to reach hurricane strength.

The long-term average is for 9.6 storms and 5.9 hurricanes during each six-month season, of which 2.3 become intense hurricanes with winds in excess of 111 mph (178 kph).

The National Hurricane Center said total rainfall of 5 inches to 10 inches (13-25 cm) was possible for the Cayman Islands and western and central Cuba. Cuba issued tropical storm warnings from Pinar del Rio to the capital Havana.

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