Tampa area under tropical storm warning for Debby
TAMPA - A tropical storm warning was in effect for the west coast of Florida, including the Tampa Bay area, as Tropical Storm Debby slowly headed northeast today in the Gulf of Mexico. The storm temporarily forced the closing of the Howard Frankland Bridge, though it reopened late Monday night. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Florida in anticipation of the storm's landfall, now forecast for the Big Bend region later this week. The declaration means the state can waive or suspend certain state laws to respond to the storm. It also means that price-gouging laws take effect. About 6:30 p.m. Monday, the Florida Highway Patrol closed the Howard Frankland Bridge, which is Interstate 275, due to high winds, surf and flooding. The patrol said surf and swells were affecting all eight lanes of traffic in both directions.After 11 p.m., the FHP issued another statement saying the Howard Frankland was open again for traffic. The Sunshine Skyway remains closed due to high winds, and the Suncoast Parkway, SR-589, is closed in both directions due to flooding from S.R. 50 to U.S. Highway 98. Flooding remained a major concern in coastal areas. The storm also spawned tornadoes and led to excessive damage statewide. State authorities said approximately 35,000 customers are without power. One death has been reported in Florida. The National Hurricane Center said Debby was about 85 miles west of Cedar Key and moving eastward near 3 mph. It had maximum sustained winds near 45 mph, barely tropical-storm status. The storm is expected to crawl northeast, come ashore along Florida's northwestern coast Wednesday night and track slowly across the state, exiting along the Atlantic Coast by Saturday morning and losing steam on the way. Gusts to 45 mph were recorded in some Bay area spots. A tropical storm warning remained in effect this morning for about 450 miles of coastline, from Mexico Beach in the Panhandle to Englewood, south of Sarasota. A tornado watch was extended until 11 p.m. today on Florida's Gulf coast. Pasco and Pinellas counties issued a local state of emergencies to assist in dealing with the storm. Debby's movement was still significantly slow, meaning the most pressing threat in the Tampa Bay region remains flooding. Authorities were asking residents and tourists to stay away from flooded streets. Some streets were still under water early today, while others were blocked with debris. Among the hardest hit was Bayshore Boulevard in South Tampa. Pasco officials were keeping a watchful eye on the Anclote River in the Elfers area as the water crept closer to the flood-stage level of 20 feet, an official said. The American Red Cross opened one countywide shelter in Hillsborough at Greco Middle School, 6925 E. Fowler Ave., Temple Terrace. No pets are allowed, only service animals. In Pasco six people remained this afternoon at the Fasano Hurricane Shelter in Hudson, down from nearly 40 who had gone there Sunday. As a precaution this morning, Hillsborough County officials were evacuating residents at Sunrise Village Retirement Home, 11722 N.17th St. The facility is in an area prone to flooding and water was up to the building this morning, the sheriff's office said. Ninety residents will be taken to facilities associated with the home. The wind and rain has slowed or halted traffic, especially for drivers going over the bridges or driving through flood-prone areas, such as South Tampa. "If you don't need to drive, don't," Hillsborough County sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said. "If people have to get on the road and they do have to travel for work or wherever else, drive with caution, reduce your speed, and increase your following distance." Bryan Koon, the state's emergency management chief, said there were widespread scattered power outages across the state. Koon did not expect the number to go up significantly but he said the total number of those without power could fluctuate in the next few days. Tampa Electric Co. reported scattered outages, particularly north of downtown, an area west of Brandon and some communities just south of Temple Terrace. Withlacoochee River Electric crews have restored service to nearly all of the 2,000 customers who lost power Sunday. Member relations manager David Lambert said that as of 11 a.m. today, only 16 customers in the company's four-county area were without power. "We had to shut off power at Anclote Villas because of high water," Lambert said. "We've got everything else restored, but we're prepared for more damage. The wind is still blowing pretty hard out here, and we're expecting more rain." The storm's path has been difficult to discern, changing from west to north to northeast over the weekend. Tropical storm warnings dropped today from the Florida-Alabama border to Destin. Earlier, warnings were called off in Alabama and Louisiana. "There are always going to be errors in making predictions. There is never going to be a perfect forecast," said Chris Landsea, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center. The storm's slow trek is allowing clouds more time to unload rain. A public advisory said parts of northern Florida could get 10 to 15 inches of rain, with some areas getting as much as 25 inches. Pasco officials planned to monitor the high tides along the Gulf, though county spokesman Eric Keaton said the anticipated 2 to 4 feet of storm surge was less of a concern than the situation around the Anclote River. Also by the afternoon, the county had closed the intersection at Saint Joe Road and Curley Road in east Pasco, he said. The Trinity Oaks and Thousands Oaks subdivisions in the Trinity area reported high levels of water, but there were no evacuations, Keaton said. Waters also were rising around a condominium off Ridge Road in west Pasco, but residents there didn't want to leave, Keaton said. Instead, they asked for assistance from county storm water crews to pump out the water that was backing up, he said. Homes and businesses were damaged Sunday by high winds authorities believe were from tornadoes in several Bay area locations. Wind tore the roof off a marina and an apartment complex in Pass-a-Grille on St. Pete Beach. Fences, signs and trees were downed and a pier was heavily damaged. Kourosh Bakhtiarian's yard was flooded. He said people were driving around to survey the area, and he was upset police hadn't closed off the neighborhood streets. "We have a lot of visitors from outside of this area. They just want to see exactly where the disaster is. I mean, this is not the happiest time. Usually people come to the beach when it's sunny and nice and they can go to get a tan. But today, we saw a lot of visitors here." No major injuries were reported. The National Weather Service has yet to confirm it was a result of a tornado, although residents in the area had little doubt. "It came from the Tierra Verde area," said Kim Caliendo. "There was a water spout coming across Boca Ciega Bay right by the Intracoastal (Waterway). And it came right at our building." On Clearwater Beach, several lifeguard stations were partially buried due to erosion and Flooding Update: the Carlouel area and Sand Key Park are mostly flooded, but passable in areas. Some homes on north Clearwater Beach are damaged. The fatality occurred at a home on Montana Trail in the Venus area of Highlands County. A child was also injured. In north Florida, the storm is also spinning drenching rains and damaging winds. Residents in several Big Bend counties were urged to leave low-lying neighborhoods because of the threat of flooding. Shelters were opened in the region. The main bridge to St. George Island, a popular vacation spot, was closed as the storm loomed. Power was already out on the island and authorities said it could be out for days. In Alabama, crews were searching for a South Carolina man who disappeared in rough surf. Debby is the fourth named storm so far this hurricane season. This is the first time four tropical storms have been recorded before July 1 during the Atlantic hurricane season since record-keeping began in 1851.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.