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Tropical Storm Debby makes landfall on Florida's Gulf Coast

5:57 PM, Jun 26, 2012   |    comments
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Tropical Storm Debby lumbered onto the marshy west coast of Florida on Tuesday, dumping more heavy rain on the already-saturated region, forecasters reported.

PHOTOS | Tropical Storm Debby
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Debby made landfall near the town of Steinhatchee, about 160 miles north of Tampa, late Tuesday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center announced. The storm is expected to gradually weaken, but a combination of storm surge and high tides will bring more flooding to towns along the Gulf Coast on Tuesday, forecasters said.

The storm has already dumped two feet of rain on parts of the state's Big Bend region caused flooding as far south as the Tampa Bay area. It's been blamed for one death from a tornado spawned Sunday afternoon in the inland town of Venus.

In Sopchoppy, across Apalachee Bay from the landfall site, Crystal Pesek said she got a text message from her sister Tuesday morning, asking how the work on her kitchen cabinets was going.

"I told her it's on hold," said Pesek. That's because the home she and her husband have spent hours painstakingly renovating was underwater.

"It's on pilings," Larry Pesek said. "The water's never been that high before, that goes without saying. It's just heartbreaking because we've put so much time and effort into the house."

As of 5 p.m., Debby packed 40 mph winds and was moving to the east-northeast at 6 mph. A tropical storm warning was in effect for the Gulf coast of Florida from Steinhatchee to Englewood, south of Tampa.

The storm was expected to weaken to a tropical depression before moving back into the Atlantic and restrengthening early Friday.

Hundreds of Florida homeowners were in the same situation Tuesday. Forecasters warned the storm could bring another 8 inches of rain to the northern part of the state as it slogs through, headed from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Isolated areas could see a total of 25 inches of rain from Debby.

Authorities in Pasco County issued a mandatory evacuation order Tuesday for some 2,000 homes along the Cotee River because of flooding. Officials were traveling by boat and car to get the word out, and water was standing in some homes as of Tuesday, county spokesman Eric Keaton.

Another area river, the Anclote, was above flood stage on Tuesday, and water is not expected to recede for two days. A total of 106 homes in the county are reported damaged, Keaton said.

Voluntary evacuations were also issued for locations in several other counties -- Clay, Suwannee, Wakulla and Taylor, according to emergency officials and CNN affiliates. Shelters were open in numerous locations for residents across the state.

Otherwise, residents were warned to stay home and off the roads. Footage from several areas showed boaters and kayakers navigating flooded roads.

In Sopchoppy, authorities rescued 57 people from homes surrounded by rising water, said Keith Blackmar of the Wakulla County Sheriff's Office.

In some spots, the water was receding, county officials said, but was still rising in other areas as rainwater drained into river systems.

"It's astonishing. I've never seen anything like this," Blackmar said Tuesday. "Our soil is sandy, so it handles water well, but not this much rain."

In Columbia County, west of Jacksonville, authorities were preparing for the Suwannee River to rise 22 feet in one day.

The river was 55 feet at White Springs, Florida, on Monday, said Harvey Campbell, spokesman for Columbia County emergency operations. On Tuesday, the prediction is for the river to rise past flood stage -- 77 feet.

"We have significant flooding problems," Campbell said. "I have people who don't remember in their lifetime the kind of rain we had overnight."

Most of those living along the river have flat boats and "don't want to be rescued," he said. Snakes, he noted, are "on the move."

President Barack Obama called Florida Gov. Rick Scott Tuesday "to ensure the state had no unmet needs as the governor and his team continue to respond to extreme weather and flooding," the White House said.

Portions of Interstate 10 in Baker County in northeastern Florida were closed Tuesday in both directions because of standing water, according to the Florida Highway Patrol, which posted a lengthy list of water-related road closures on its website.

"I've lived in Baker County all my life, and I don't believe I've ever seen the rain come down like this," Sheriff Joey Dobson told CNN affiliate WJXT. "I don't think I've ever seen I-10 closed, at least for water anyway."

More than 20 inches of rain have fallen across northern Florida, particularly in areas just south of Tallahassee, according to the National Weather Service. Panacea, Florida, saw 20.63 inches in 24 hours; Sanborn, Florida, received 16.26 inches; and Saint Marks, Florida, received 20.96 inches over the past 48 hours, according to the weather agency.

Flooding was seen as far south as Fort Myers, Florida, where the Caloosahatchee River overflowed its banks into the downtown area. CNN iReporter Alex Butler, who is also a reporter at CNN affiliate WFTX, said normally there is a wall separating the land from the river, but the wall was underwater Tuesday.

The widespread flooding and damage resulted not only from Debby's slow movement, but also from the storm's size -- tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph extended outward up to 205 miles from its center.

Northern Florida and southeastern Georgia are forecast to see another 4 to 8 inches of rain over the next couple of days, forecasters said. More isolated tornadoes are possible Tuesday across Florida, forecasters said.

In his call to Scott, Obama "expressed his condolences for the loss of life as well as the extensive damage to homes in Florida as a result of the storm, and reiterated that his administration -- through (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) -- would remain in close contact with the state as they continued to respond to this event and stood ready to provide additional assistance if necessary," the White House said.

At the state's request, a FEMA liaison officer was on site at the Florida state emergency operations center, according to the White House.

Scott declared a state of emergency Monday "so we can coordinate the use of all state resources to make sure we can respond promptly if anything happens."

Near Tampa, wildlife officials assessed weather conditions in order to assist a manatee calf whose mother was found dead. Residents tied the mother to a sea wall so the calf wouldn't leave its side. An adult male manatee was also staying with the mother and calf.

The calf's mother was moved, and officials discovered the calf was older than initially thought, so it was allowed to swim away into Tampa Bay, said Andy Garrette of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

(Associated Press)

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