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Downgraded Debby pounds North Florida

TAMPA - Debby was downgraded to a tropical depression after making landfall in North Florida on Tuesday, but flooding and sinkholes were still a concern in the Tampa Bay area after days of relentless rain and storm surge. Some bits of normalcy did return, however, as the Sunshine Skyway was finally reopened after more than two days. Traffic began driving across the Interstate 275 bridge that spans Tampa Bay around 3 a.m. Wednesday. Troopers closed the bridge on Sunday afternoon as winds from Debby pummeled the Tampa Bay area. Flooding on Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard had receded some by Wednesday morning, but police still had baracades up from Rome Avenue to Platt Street.
The saturated ground has opened numerous sinkholes throughout the area. More than 20 were reported in Hernando County, and a large one opened Tuesday night on Jerry Smith Road near Plant City. The National Hurricane Center downgraded Debby from a tropical storm to a depression Tuesday night as it slogged across northern Florida toward the Atlantic coast. Debby's maximum sustained winds early Wednesday were near 35 mph. But forecasters said a combination of storm surge and tide could bring flooding to coastal areas in north Florida that have already been drenched by the storm that sat virtually motionless in the Gulf of Mexico for several days. There was already major flooding at Black Creek, as well as several other rivers in the Jacksonville region, National Weather Service meteorologist Angie Enyedi said. She said tornadoes could form to the east and the southeast of the storm. The hurricane center said early Wednesday that Debby was 25 miles southeast of St. Augustine, and moving east-northeast at about 10 mph. The storm was expected to head out to sea later in the day. But many in Debby's path were still recovering from flooding that damaged homes, washed out roads, opened up sinkholes and closed a section of Interstate 10 - the state's main east-west highway. 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 like a giant shower head set up over the state's Gulf Coast. Debby has dumped as much as 26 inches of rain in some spots. Disney World wasn't as crowded as usual, and one of its water parks closed because of the soggy, windy weather. Along the Panhandle, 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 finally blew ashore Tuesday afternoon near Steinhatchee in the Big Bend area, the crook of Florida's elbow. At that point, it had sustained winds near 40 mph - barely a tropical storm - hours before it was downgraded. Several areas in northern Florida have received more than 10 inches of rain. Forecasters had said southeastern Georgia could expect the same, but that risk was reduced when the storm turned eastward Tuesday night. Wakulla, an area in northwestern Florida known for camping and canoeing, had gotten more than 26 inches as of Tuesday. A woman was killed in a tornado spun off from the storm Sunday, and a man disappeared in the rough surf over the weekend in Alabama. The storm knocked out power to 250,000 homes and business starting last weekend, but electricity had been restored to all but about 15,000 Progress Energy customers by midday Tuesday. Debby has caused mostly scattered flooding and opened up sinkholes, but forecasters warned it could get worse. "Even though the winds are coming down, the rain threat continues," said James Franklin at the hurricane center. "We expect another 4 to 8 inches, 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. In New Port Richey, 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 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. WJXT-TV was reporting that as of 9 p.m. Tuesday, a 50-mile stretch of the interstate remained closed between U.S. 90 and the Interstate 75 interchange.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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