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A NASA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) image shows the Tropical Storm Colin over Florida and the U.S. South-East coast in this satellite image released by on June 6, 2016. Courtesy GOES Project Science/NASA/Handout via REUTERS

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By Letitia Stein

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Colin picked up speed over the Gulf of Mexico on Monday as it headed toward Florida's northwest coast, unleashing thunderstorms and flooding, while the governor activated the national guard ahead of imminent landfall.

The storm, about 70 miles (110 km) from the Florida coast as of 5 p.m. (1800 GMT), barrelled toward land at 23 miles per hour, more quickly than it moved earlier in the day, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

The combination of the storm surge and high tides threatened flooding in coastal areas across the U.S. Southeast, with the storm expected to make landfall below Florida's Panhandle on Monday evening.

A tropical storm warning was extended to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On its forecast path, Colin would churn across southeastern Georgia early on Tuesday and later in the day menace the North and South Carolina coasts.

As Colin blasted 50 mile-per-hour winds at Florida, tornado warnings were issued across the state. The storm was forecast to dump as much as 8 inches (20 cm) of rain in some parts of the state, the hurricane centre said.

Governor Rick Scott, who had declared a state of emergency in 34 of the state's 67 counties, said more than 6,000 Florida National Guard members were activated and ready for deployment.Fast-moving squalls, tornados, flooding and property damage resulting from the fierce winds remained threats into the night, and far beyond the storm's immediate path, forecasters warned.

"It's going to impact pretty much our entire state," Scott told a news conference.

In the St. Petersburg beach town of Gulfport, roads were already flooded. One resident used a kayak to float down a thoroughfare past a waterfront cafe that stayed open, allowing people used to severe weather to witness the storm.

"This is a mild tempest," said Trace Taylor, a local writer lunching on onion rings. “What’s there to be afraid of? It’s just water and it’s not that bad."

More than 10,000 customers were without power ahead of the storm making landfall, local utilities reported.

The storm also threatened crops in Florida, the country's biggest citrus producer, which sent U.S. orange juice futures on Monday to their highest in more than two years.

Waters could rise by 1 to 3 feet (30 cm to 90 cm) along the state's western coast from the storm surges.

Colin is part of a brisk start to the Atlantic hurricane season that runs through Nov. 30. Over the U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend, the Carolinas were lashed by heavy rain and winds from Tropical Storm Bonnie.

(Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frances Kerry and David Gregorio)

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