Emily downgraded as storm slogs across Florida

Central, South Florida to get up to 8 inches of rain over 36 hours

TAMPA – Ten hours after naming Emily a tropical storm, the National Hurricane Center downgraded it to a depression at 5 p.m. Monday as the system slogged eastward across the Florida peninsula, spreading drenching drains and causing power outages. 

The National Hurricane Center said Emily made landfall late Monday on Florida's Gulf Coast south of Tampa Bay and then began moving east toward the Atlantic coast. Emily spent only a few hours as a tropical storm, losing strength as it marched inland across the central Florida peninsula toward the Atlantic coast.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at an afternoon news briefing in the state capital of Tallahassee that about 18,000 homes and businesses lost power, mostly in hard-hit Manatee County. Scott, who was on vacation in Maine and returned to the state when the advisory changed, said the storm was a reminder that severe weather can strike the state at any time.

“While it is positive news that this tropical storm has been downgraded to a tropical depression, we must remain vigilant. I will continue to receive briefings on the impacts of this storm tonight and will deploy state resources to assist local efforts if needed," Scott said.

No injuries have been reported along the Gulf Coast, although two fishermen were rescued from Tampa Bay while clinging to a channel marker light after their boat sank.

Coast Guard officials said they were called Monday morning about the two brothers, who had been out fishing when their boat engine died. While the brothers worked on the inoperable pump, the boat drifted and struck the range light, according to a Coast Guard statement. The brothers tied their boat off to the light and were forced to cling to the navigation aid and call for help when the vessel sank. A boat from Coast Guard station St. Petersburg rescued the men.

State emergency management officials also said that the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, which was closed for a few hours because of high winds, had since reopened. The storm had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph as it crawled ashore, but was down to top winds of 35 mph hours later.

The storm churned ashore near Tampa Bay at midday Monday with drenching rains and fears of scattered street flooding that prompted the governor to declare nearly half of Florida's counties in a state of emergency.

At 11 p.m., Emily was moving inland over west-central Florida, about 35 miles west of Vero Beach, at 9 mph.

Emily will reach the east coast of Florida early Tuesday morning, with a turn toward the northeast and accelerating speed expected. 

As of 11 p.m., the National Hurricane Center no longer believes Emily will regenerate into a tropical storm. 

All tropical storm warnings have been dropped, but the National Weather Service in Jacksonville did say there would be a high risk of rip currents along northeast Florida and southeast Georgia beaches through Tuesday evening.

A flood watch is in effect for much of the Tampa area, raising the threat of some scattered street flooding in low-lying areas. A few Tampa area communities, such as Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs, offered residents sandbags to stave off any flooding.

Forecasters also warned of possible isolated tornadoes and offshore waterspouts spinning off of the system, which sent swirling rain bands across parts of south Florida. A tropical storm warning from Anclote River to Bonita Beach on the Gulf Coast was lifted once the storm headed inland Monday.

Law enforcement agencies urged motorists to drive with caution on a day that began as a miserable Monday morning commute for many. 

"We actually had to pull over for a while and just park and wait the rain out. It was just too hard to drive for quite a while," said Starr Townshend, a Georgia resident who was driving to Okeechobee on Monday. "I don't get scared easily, but it was definitely something that forced me to pull over and wait it out."

As Townshend and her children traveled from North Georgia to Okeechobee, where they later met up with a relative, they encountered Emily when it was still a tropic storm.

"We drove in and as soon as we got to the house, it was just blowing wind everywhere. It was blowing stuff over," Townshend said.

Her relative was on his way to work when Emily came roaring through.

"The rain was really bad and the wind was blowing like crazy. It was actually blowing my truck. I saw a couple of wrecks," Shane Townshend said. "It was raining bad enough that I couldn't see where I was going, so I turned around and went back to the house."

On Treasure Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico west of St. Petersburg, a normally packed beach parking lot was almost empty of tourists Monday. Only a handful of people were on the white sand beach and a few bodysurfed small waves in an area that doesn't normally get waves. Some took selfies amid a mix of clouds and patches of blue sky on the northern fringe of the storm system.

Scott went to the state's Emergency Operations Center and called for residents in affected areas to be vigilant as the storm crossed central Florida.

He said National Guard units are ready to deploy, if needed. The American Red Cross is on standby to set up shelters in Pinellas and Indian River counties.

Emily is expected to produce total rain accumulations of 2 to 4 inches through Monday night along the west coast of central Florida between the Tampa Bay area and Naples, with isolated amounts up to 8 inches possible.

Elsewhere across central and south Florida, 1 to 2 inches of rain is expected with localized amounts of up to 4 inches possible.

"We know that heavy rainfall is expected across Central Florida for the next few days. Our focus is on keeping Florida families safe, and we will continue to release updates on this storm as it develops," Scott said.

The counties covered by the state of emergency included: Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Citrus, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Manatee, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Okeechobee, Orange, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Lucie, Sumter and Volusia.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis warned that with flash flooding likely, Floridians should to keep copies of their homeowners’ and auto insurance policies handy and take note of the state of Florida’s insurance consumer helpline in case of insurance-related questions: 877-693-5236.

Attorney General Pam Bondi on Monday activated Florida’s price-gouging hotline for consumers in the counties of the state of emergency.