Tropical storm Debby drenches Florida's Gulf Coast

Tropical storm Debby is drenching Florida with heavy rains, flooding low-lying neighbourhoods and knocking out power to thousands of homes and businesses as it lingered off the state's coast.

35,000 homes lose power as residents prepare for up to 610 mm of rain

Sean Kummerow, from Bradenton Beach, Fla., walks out to the seawall behind his flooded neighborhood on Monday to inspect damage and look for waterspouts, as a storm surge and high winds associated with tropical storm Debby batter the area. (Brian Blanco/Reuters)

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 610 milliimetres over the next few days and trigger widespread flooding.

At least one person was killed Sunday by a tornado spun off by the large storm system 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 midafternoon, 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.

Statewide emergency

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 8 p.m. Monday, Debby was stationary in the Gulf of Mexico, 48 kilometers southwest of Apalachicola, with sustained winds around 72 km/h, according to the National Hurricane Center.

This satellite image taken early Monday shows tropical storm Debby located about 145 kilometres southwest of Apalachicola, Fla. (Weather Underground/Associated Press)

A tropical storm warning remained in effect Monday evening for more than 800 kilometres of coastline, from Destin in the upper Panhandle to Englewood, south of Sarasota.

Forecasters cautioned that Debby is a large tropical cyclone spreading strong winds and heavy rains at great distances from its center.

They said it would crawl to the northeast, come ashore along Florida's northwestern coast on 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 254 to 381 milliimetres of rain, and some spots as much as 635 millimetres, 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.

Cedar Key Fire Chief Robert Robinson clings to a section of a floating dock that broke free from the rest as strong storm surge and flooding are felt from tropical storm Debby, in Cedar Key, Fla., on Sunday. (Brad McClanny/Gainesville Sun/Associated Press)

Monday evening, the state announced the closing of the Howard Frankland bridge that connects Tampa, including the region's major airport, and St. Petersburg. The eight-lane bridge carries Interstate 275 over Tampa Bay. Traffic was being diverted to an alternative span.

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 119 km/h threshold for a hurricane: "It's a little rash to send everyone home."