Katrina to become hurricane before hitting Florida

Tropical Storm Katrina was expected to gather strength over warm Atlantic waters on Thursday and become a hurricane before hitting Florida's crowded southeast coast.

Katrina could reach the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area late on Thursday or early on Friday, dumping up to 12 inches (30 cm) of rain on southern Florida as it moved slowly across the state into the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was then expected to hit the Florida Panhandle on Monday.

Some areas could get up to 20 inches (51 cm) of rain, the hurricane center said.

With top winds of 50 mph (85 kph) by 8 a.m. (1200 GMT), the 11th tropical storm of a busy Atlantic hurricane season was 30 miles (45 km) south-southwest of Freeport on Grand Bahama island and 70 miles (115 km) east of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"Additional strengthening is possible today and tonight ... and Katrina could reach Category 1 hurricane strength before the center reaches the southeastern coast of Florida," the hurricane center said, reports Reuters.

According to CNN, the warning area includes the major cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, as well as Lake Okeechobee.

The forecast calls for Katrina to make landfall between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, bringing torrential rain as it slices across the peninsula through the Everglades. It is expected to enter the Gulf of Mexico late Friday or early Saturday.

If Katrina's predicted track holds, it would be Fort Lauderdale's first direct hit since Hurricane Cleo 41 years ago.

Some gas stations along the Interstate 95 corridor between Miami and Fort Lauderdale were reportedly running dry, and people were stocking up on bottled water, plywood and other supplies.

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