Dangerous conditions on Ala coast ahead of Karen

GULF SHORES, Ala. (AP) - Officials warned people to stay out of the surf along Alabama's coast Thursday because of dangerous conditions ahead of tropical storm Karen, which could pound the coast with heavy rains, high surf and stiff winds.

Safety workers hoisted double red flags at Gulf Shores because of treacherous rip currents, and they said conditions would only get worse as the storm approached the coast.

Alabama's two coastal counties and nearly the entire northern Gulf Coast were under a hurricane watch, and the forecast track showed the storm could come ashore in Alabama late Saturday or early Sunday.

Gov. Robert Bentley and Art Faulkner, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, were consulting with weather forecasters and federal emergency officials about storm preparations. "Now is the time to think ahead and prepare in case Karen directly impacts Alabama," Bentley said in a statement.

The storm slowed preparations for one of the largest fall events on the Alabama coast, the National Shrimp Festival in Gulf Shores. Tents were supposed to begin going up over the weekend for the fair-like event, which begins Oct. 10 at the public beach, but city spokesman Grant Brown said work was delayed to let the storm pass.

"If it blows in a lot of sand we'll want to get that swept out," he said. The ferry linking the eastern and western sides of Mobile Bay said it wouldn't operate after Thursday because of Karen's approach.

The shutdown will force motorists to drive more than an hour extra to cross the bay. Forecasters said Karen could cause heavy rains and storm surge on the coast, but major damage isn't expected since the storm was likely to be below the minimum strength for a hurricane when it reaches the coast.

Brown said the Karen shouldn't be major problem for Alabama, but Baldwin County emergency planners met to go over storm procedures just in case. "We don't want to let our guard down," he said.