Debby weakens to tropical depression

While Debby has weakened to a tropical depression as it makes its way across northern Florida, forecasters are warning that coastal areas that have been drenched in recent days remain at a high risk of flooding.

Forecasters said they expected Debby to turn toward the east overnight

Austin Tinker floats on flood waters from Tropical Storm Debby in downtown Live Oak, Fla. (Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun/Associated Press)

Debby, the guest that wouldn't leave, is ruining things for a lot of other visitors even as it weakens to a tropical depression.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said late Tuesday that Debby was 177 kilometres west of Daytona Beach and moving southeastward at about 11 km/h. It had maximum sustained winds of 56 km/h.

Forecasters said they expected Debby to turn toward the east overnight, and then veer east-northeast while picking up speed. The storm's centre is expected to cross the northern Florida peninsula late Tuesday or Wednesday morning and head out into the Atlantic as early as Wednesday afternoon.

Isolated tornadoes are possible across the Florida peninsula, and coastal areas may see flooding because of the combination of a storm surge and the tide.

Vacationers were wearing ponchos instead of swimsuits at the peak of the summer season because of the tropical storm, which has drenched Florida for at least four days straight. Debby has dumped as much as 66 centimetres of rain in some spots.

Richard Williams, left, rescues his neighbours and their dog Delilah after their home in Elfers, Fla., was flooded. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/Associated Press)

Disney World wasn't as crowded as usual, and one of its water parks closed because of the soggy, windy weather. Also, Sea World closed early on Monday.

Along the Florida Panhandle, where Debby sat offshore nearly motionless for days, the parking lot at the 100-room Buccaneer Inn was empty because of a power outage ahead of the usually big pre-July Fourth weekend.

"We've had bad luck on this island," said the inn's vice-president, JoAnn Shiver. "We've had Dennis. We've had Katrina. We had the oil spill."

Debby makes landfall

Debby finally blew ashore Tuesday afternoon near Steinhatchee in the Big Bend area, the crook of Florida's elbow. It had sustained winds near 64 km/h, barely a tropical storm.

Several areas in northern Florida have received more than 25 centimetres of rain, and forecasters said southeastern Georgia could expect the same. Wakulla, an area in northwestern Florida known for camping and canoeing, had gotten more than 66 centimetres as of Tuesday.

A woman was killed in a tornado spun off from the storm, and a man disappeared in the rough surf over the weekend in Alabama. In addition to knocking out power to about 35,000 customers, Debby has caused mostly scattered flooding, but forecasters warned it could get worse.

"Even though the winds are coming down, the rain threat continues," said James Franklin at the National Hurricane Center. "We expect another 4 to 8 inches [10 to 20 centimetres], in some of these areas up in north Florida, in particular."

President Barack Obama called Florida Gov. Rick Scott and promised the state will have "no unmet needs" as it deals with the flooding, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Residents flee

In New Port Richey, a suburb about 48 km north of Tampa, most of the 170-plus elevated homes at the Suncoast Gateway park for retirees had water underneath them. Several dozen homeowners decided to stay, despite having no electricity or tap water.

Some of those who left returned by kayak to collect their belongings.

Luisa Santoro decided to flee on Tuesday. Wearing rubber boots, she returned briefly to get her cat.

"My cat is atop the furniture," she said in Spanish, adding that her home was dry but that she feared a swollen retention pond nearby would rise further.

Portions of Interstate 10, the main east-west highway across northern Florida, were shut down because of flooding.

In the Panama City Beach area, there was no exodus of tourists, said Jennifer Jenkins, executive director for the Gulf County tourism council. But it wasn't business as usual.

"I think most people went to the grocery store, maybe bought some board games and just decided to hang out till it's over," she said.