Tropical Storm Debby soaks Florida's Gulf Coast, rain expected to continue in Beaufort County

The Associated PressJune 25, 2012 

A satellite image shows Tropical Storm Debby as it churns across the Florida panhandle.

COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER

Practically parked off Florida's Gulf Coast since the weekend, Tropical Storm Debby raked the Tampa Bay area with high wind and heavy rain Monday in a drenching that could top 2 feet over the next few days and trigger widespread flooding.

Beaufort County escaped with mild rains Monday. A chance of showers and isolated thunderstorms will continue today in Beaufort County, with 3 to 5 inches of rain possible, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The rain is expected mainly this morning, forecasters with the National Weather Service in Charleston said, and will clear out later in the week.

At least one person was killed Sunday by a tornado spun off by Debby in Florida, and Alabama authorities searched for a man who disappeared in the rough surf.

An estimated 35,000 homes and businesses lost electricity. But as of mid-afternoon, the slow-moving storm had caused only scattered damage, including flooding in some low-lying areas.

The bridge leading to St. George Island, a vacation spot along the Florida Panhandle, was closed to everyone except residents, renters and business owners to keep looters out. The island had no power, and palm trees had been blown down, but roads were passable.

"Most true islanders are hanging in there because they know that you may or may not be able to get back to your home when you need to," said David Walker, an island resident having a beer at Eddy Teach's bar. He said he had been through many storms on the island and Debby was on the weaker end of the scale.

Gov. Rick Scott declared a statewide emergency, allowing authorities to put laws against price-gouging into effect and override bureaucratic hurdles to deal with the storm.

By late afternoon, Debby was in the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles southwest of Apalachicola, with sustained winds around 45 mph.

Forecasters said it would crawl to the northeast, come ashore along Florida's northwestern coast Wednesday and track slowly across the state, exiting along the Atlantic Coast by Saturday morning and losing steam along the way.

Parts of northern Florida could get 10 to 15 inches of rain, and some spots as much as 25 inches, as the storm wrings itself out, forecasters said.

"The widespread flooding is the biggest concern," said Florida Emergency Operations Center spokeswoman Julie Roberts. "It's a concern that Debby is going to be around for the next couple of days, and while it sits there, it's going to continue to drop rain. The longer it sits, the more rain we get."

High winds and the threat of flooding forced the closing of an interstate highway bridge that spans Tampa Bay and links St. Petersburg with areas to the southwest.

People in several sparsely populated counties near the crook of Florida's elbow were urged to leave low-lying neighborhoods because of the danger of flooding. Shelters opened in some places.

On St. Pete Beach in the Tampa Bay area, surfers enjoyed the large waves in the Gulf, which is usually so calm the water looks like glass. Residents cleaned up debris in yards and streets from a possible tornado Sunday.

"The wind picked up so bad. It's very, very scary. I ran into the closet underneath the hallway stairs," said Ann Garrison, who has lived on the barrier island for 20 years but has never seen such strong winds. She said that when she came back out after just a few minutes, "the fence was gone, and it was in the middle of the yard."

Nearby, a likely tornado ripped the roof off a marina and an apartment complex and knocked down fences, trees and signs.

Kourosh Bakhtiarian's yard was flooded. He said people were driving around the neighborhood to gawk at the damage, and he complained that police hadn't closed off the streets.

"We have a lot of visitors from outside of this area. They just want to see exactly where the disaster is. I mean, this is not the happiest time," he said.

On St. George Island, many businesses were closed, but Eddy Teach's bar had a few customers and used a generator to keep beer and food cold.

"The tourists cleared out. It's not a good thing and hurts the economy during a week in peak season," said Patrick Sparks, a manager at the bar. He scoffed at the storm, which was well below the 74 mph threshold for a hurricane: "It's a little rash to send everyone home."

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Farrington reported from St. George Island. Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro and Christine Armario in Miami; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee; and AP Auto Writer Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed to this report.

Staff writer Allison Stice contributed to this report.

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