BRENDAN FARRINGTON and TAMARA LUSH
ST. GEORGE ISLAND, Fla. (AP) — Parts of the main interstate highway across northern Florida were closed by flooding Tuesday as Tropical Storm Debby hung stubbornly offshore over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening up to two feet of rain in places.
After raking Florida's Gulf coast with high winds and heavy rain, Debby promised to bring more of the same in the coming days as it moves slowly on a path forecast to take it over the state and east into the Atlantic by Friday.
The National Hurricane Center said Debby was about 85 miles west of Cedar Key, Fla., and moving eastward near 3 mph. It had maximum sustained winds near 45 mph, barely tropical-storm status.
But the wind, high surf and relentless rain have made the storm's presence felt.
The Florida Highway Patrol closed portions of Interstate 10 in north Florida early Tuesday due to flooding caused by rain. Troopers reported several areas of flooding on a roughly 50-mile stretch of the east-west interstate east of where it crosses I-75 and the agency warned motorists to use extreme caution on other parts of the highway.
South of that stretch of I-10, four puppies and a young dog drowned when a swollen creek flooded an animal shelter in the city of Starke. The Florida Times-Union reported that officials placed sandbags and dug trenches outside to protect the shelter, but the water rose quickly Sunday night.
Farther south, in the Tampa Bay area, roads such as Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard were washed out. Residents tried to salvage belongings from flooded homes in low-lying areas. At one point Monday, high winds and flooding concerns prompted authorities to close two major routes over Tampa Bay into St. Petersburg: the Howard Frankland Bridge from Tampa and the Sunshine Skyway from the southeast.
Before nightfall, Debbie had dumped more than a foot of rain on some parts over the previous 96 hours. And forecasters were expecting the rains to continue, bringing another 4 to 8 inches across northern Florida.
Torrential rains and flooding would continue across parts of the Florida Panhandle and northern Florida for several days, even though the storm wasn't expected to gain strength.
"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."
At least one person was killed Sunday by a tornado spun off by the large storm system.
WFLA-TV reported that a young mother, Heather Town, died Sunday when her Highlands County home was lifted off its foundation and she and her baby girl were thrown into nearby woods. The mother was found clutching the child, who survived.
"She was a great mother, and held her baby through all of this and held her so tight," her father, Elmer Town, Jr., told the news station. "She was holding her during the tornado. And when they found her, she was still holding her."
Alabama authorities searched for a man who disappeared in the rough surf.
An estimated 35,000 homes and businesses lost electricity. Progress Energy reported that as of 4 p.m. Monday, about 18,900 were still without power.
The bridge leading to St. George Island, a vacation spot along the 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.
Florida 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.
A tropical storm warning remained in effect Tuesday morning for about 450 miles of coastline, from Mexico Beach in the 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 generally east, come ashore along Florida's northwestern coast Wednesday night and track slowly across the state, exiting along the Atlantic Coast by Friday and losing steam as it crosses land.
"We're not expecting the storm to intensify," said Ernie Jillson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Tampa, early Tuesday. "We're expecting it to stay a fairly weak tropical storm."
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.