TAMPA — When Tropical Storm Debby formed in the Gulf of Mexico last season it certainly caused no reason for people in the Tampa Bay area to fret.
The unassuming Debby wasn't impressive: Not even a hurricane, its strongest winds barely hitting 60 mph and it was far away, eventually waddling toward Florida near Cedar Key, 130 miles north of Tampa.
A couple days later, by June 24-25, folks had reason to view the 2012 hurricane season's fourth storm differently.
“I think a lot of people were caught by surprise by what Debby did,” said meteorologist Dan Noah from the National Weather Service office in Ruskin.
During Debby's 30-hour slog across Florida from the Big Bend near Steinhatchee to the East Coast, the unremarkable tropical storm uncorked a summer month's worth of rain in one day at Tampa International Airport and 21.5 inches southwest of Brooksville.
A main lesson from Debby comes from what havoc, death and damage a tropical storm that drew little concern from the public can do.
“The important thing to learn from Debby was people should not take any situation lightly,” said Preston Cook, director of Hillsborough County's Office of Emergency Management.
The weak tropical storm killed five people and was indirectly responsible for three others, including 71-year-old Armando Perez, who died from a heart attack while wading through flood waters near Indian Rocks Beach in Pinellas County.
Another Pinellas County person died in rough surf and officials blame Debby for the death of a man found floating in flood waters near Anclote Key, according to the National Hurricane Center report about the storm.
“A slow moving tropical storm can do that. It can be deadly,” meteorologist Noah said.
The storm spewed 24 tornadoes around Florida, so many that most of the state was under a tornado watch for 36 hours, Noah said. In Highlands County, the body of a mother was found 200 feet from her wrecked mobile home clinging to her 3-year-old child, who survived.
From 10 to 22 inches of rain blanketed the Tampa Bay area, Noah said. “That's widespread rain, not just scattered in places.”
The rain engorged rivers, pushing Anclote River in Pasco County to its second-highest crest in 67 years and forcing evacuations. People had to be rescued by boats, Noah said.
“The thing about Debby was water, water, water,” said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The storm moved slowly, allowing time for torrents of rain to cover the area. Places vulnerable to freshwater flooding soon were inundated as Debby moved by.
“Some of folks who were flooded locally woke up to water flowing through their windows,” said Hillsborough emergency management specialist and planner Ted Williams. “Even a small tropical storm can cause flooding.”
Waves in the Gulf churned by Debby pushed a storm surge of 4 feet near Clearwater and 3.5 feet at St. Petersburg along coastal and tidal areas.
Then there was 15 feet of beach scoured away in Pinellas, with some of the worst erosion at Treasure Island; closing a northern stretch of the Suncoast Parkway; shutting down the Skyway Bridge for more than two days and setting the record for June rainfall in Tampa since 1890.
“There were a lot of road closures during the storm. There really was a lot of water from Debby,” Cook said.
The hurricane center estimates Debby left $250 million in damage.
For emergency managers, the storm's unpredictability proved troublesome. Early in the storm's life some forecast models, including the European model, predicted it would go to Texas as Debby hovered in the Gulf before moving ashore.
“We didn't know how long it was going to stick around,” Cook said.
During the storm residents surprised by Debby's impact called the weather service about water invading their homes, Noah told The Tampa Tribune at the time.
"They asked, 'What should I do?' We told them they should have already had had a plan," he said in a June interview. "This was a minor storm, really far away from Tampa, and look what it did."
Debby should be a lesson for residents if a Category 1 or stronger hurricane sets it sights on Tampa, he said at the time. "If we had a Category 2 storm, people wouldn't know what to think. You can take everything you saw the last couple of days and multiply it by 16."