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Alberto downgraded to a depression, but still bringing heavy rains to U.S. southeast

Forecasters downgraded Alberto to a still-dangerous depression Monday evening, warning heavy rains and an accompanying flood threat would continue in the aftermath of the storm's landfall in the Florida Panhandle.

Heavy downpours from weakening system could raise potential for life-threatening flash floods

Rangers with the the U.S. National Park Service close off Highway 399 through Gulf Islands National Seashore as a subtropical storm makes landfall on Monday in Pensacola, Fla. (Dan Anderson/Associated Press)

Forecasters downgraded Alberto to a still-dangerous depression Monday evening, warning heavy rains and an accompanying flood threat would continue in the aftermath of the storm's landfall in the Florida Panhandle.

The Memorial Day strike on the Gulf Coast by the first named storm of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season drove holiday beachgoers away from roiling, dangerous surf. What had sprung up from the Gulf of Mexico as a subtropical storm was now a vast, soggy system trekking inland as it flung rain — heavy at times — all around the U.S. southeast.

Forecasters warned that heavy downpours from the weakening system could raise the potential for life-threatening flash floods in coming hours or days across north Florida, much of Alabama and large areas of Georgia — and eventually into Tennessee and the Carolinas.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the depression was centreed at 11 p.m. ET Monday about 80 kilometres west-northwest of Dothan, Ala. Its top sustained winds had dropped nearly in half to about 55 km/h. What remains of Alberto was crawling northward at about 19 km/h.

Authorities did not immediately attribute any deaths or injuries directly to Alberto. But in North Carolina, a television news anchor and a photojournalist were killed Monday when a tree that had been uprooted from rain-soaked ground toppled on their SUV as they reported on severe weather on the fringes of the huge system.

30 cm of rain possible

More rain is on the way. Between 10 to 25 centimetres of rain could soak the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, and western Georgia before the storm moves on. Isolated deluges of 30 centimetres also are possible.

Forecasters said Alberto could then become a subtropical depression during the night before spreading rains Tuesday over the Tennessee Valley and later in the week around the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region.

Meanwhile, potentially life-threatening rough surf and rip currents continued on the northern Gulf Coast after Alberto rolled up big waves and tides along the coast. Lifeguards posted red flags along the white sands of Pensacola Beach, where swimming and wading were banned as Alberto disrupted long holiday weekend plans for millions.

The storm forced some Memorial Day tributes to be cancelled across Florida's Panhandle. Safety was the priority, but the decision was still a "heartbreaker," said Tom Rice, a 29-year-old Army veteran who leads the organizations that had planned a ceremony Monday at Beal Memorial Cemetery in Fort Walton Beach.

'We got the flags out'

Some stragglers still made their way through the rain to pay tribute at the cemetery's Veterans Tribute Tower, however. Rice said American flags had been placed Saturday on the graves of all 1,700 veterans buried in the cemetery.

"We got the flags out," Rice told the Northwest Florida Daily News as wind whipped a massive U.S. flag flying at half-staff. "That's what's important."

Subtropical storm Alberto is pictured nearing the Florida Panhandle on Sunday. (NASA/Reuters)

Along the Florida Panhandle, tourists vowed Alberto wouldn't dampen their vacations.

Jason Powell sought to keep his children entertained with movies and TV until Alberto blows past his pristine Florida vacation spot.

"So far we've seen a lot of wind and the ocean is really high, covering up the entire beach," Powell said.

Storm expected to weaken

Janet Rhumes said her group of friends from Kansas had been planning their Memorial Day weekend on Navarre Beach since October. They stocked up on groceries and settled in for card games. "We've never seen one before and we're here celebrating a friend's 20th birthday," Rhumes told the Daily News. "So how often can you say you rode a storm out?"

Elsewhere, Florida's Division of Emergency Management said about 2,600 customers were without power for a time in northwestern Florida on Monday.

As Alberto's centre heads inland it is being deprived of the warm waters that fuel tropical weather systems, causing it to weaken, forecasters said. In coming hours it was expected to become a subtropical depression.

A subtropical storm has a less defined and cooler centre than a tropical storm, and its strongest winds are found farther from its center. And some of its rain bands spread hundreds of kilometres away from the core of the storm.

2 journalists killed

Elsewhere, the North Carolina Highway Patrol said a large tree toppled on a news television vehicle Monday near Tryon, N.C. WYFF-TV of Greenville, S.C., said a news anchor, Mike McCormick, and photojournalist, Aaron Smeltzer, with that station were both killed.

McCormick and Smeltzer had just interviewed Tryon Fire Chief Geoffrey Tennant as they covered storms in North Carolina.

A surfer makes his way out into the water as the subtropical storm approaches in Pensacola. (Dan Anderson/Associated Press)

"Ten minutes later we get the call and it was them," Tennant said at a news conference, his voice cracking.

Tennant did not directly blame the up to 5 centimetres of rain that fell Monday from the fringes of Alberto for the deaths. He said the roots of a large tree that toppled on the vehicle came loose from ground saturated by a week's worth of earlier rain.

The men died instantly, their TV vehicle's engine still running, Tennant said.