Debby gone; floods continue; cleanup begins

Torrential rains leave homes, roads under water

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico that plagued Florida with flooding rain for three days before it made landfall near Steinhatchee late Tuesday afternoon crossed the state overnight and exited into the Atlantic Ocean overnight as a tropical depression.

"Because she has accelerated, you will be amazed how quickly our weather improves," said Channel 4 chief meteorologist John Gaughan, who expects the sun to come out Wednesday afternoon.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, Tropical Depression Debby was 126 miles east-southeast of Jacksonville with maximum sustained winds near 35 mph. It was moving east at about 10 mph on a track that would take it out to sea.

While standing water that closed hundreds of roads across northeast Florida as the storm passed has run off, some roads were damaged by washouts and others remain covered by creeks and rivers that have overflowed their banks and are nearing historic crests.

Fifty miles of Interstate 10 between U.S. 90 in Baker County and the I-75 interchange in Columbia County remained closed Wednesday due to water over the highway.  A section of County Road 218 in Clay County washed away, stranding residents in their homes.

Part of 118th Street collapsed and is closed to traffic and Nassau County is reporting that the U.S. Highway 301 bridge near Otis Road in Bryceville has washed away.

There was already major flooding at Black Creek and along the St. Marys River, forcing some from their homes.  Late Tuesday, a voluntary evacuation in northern Baker County became mandatory, with authorities rescuing people by boat.

"All the tributaries are going to rise some more before they fall," Channel 4 meteorologist Richard Nunn said.

Flood watches and warnings remain in effect for most inland counties on Wednesday.

"While Tropical Storm Debby was downgraded to a tropical depression last night, Florida continues to feel the impacts from the storm," Gov. Rick Scott said. "It is imperative that Florida's residents and visitors in the affected areas continue to follow instructions from local officials to ensure the safety of their families and businesses in the wake of this storm."

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.

In a state where the biggest attractions are the sand and the sun, Debby forced many to make other plans.

Several areas in northern Florida and southeast Georgia received more than 20 inches of rain. 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 across the state.

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, a suburb about 30 miles north of Tampa, 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.

In Apalachicola, the hugely popular Boss Oyster restaurant was closed for the third day in a row Tuesday after the rain overwhelmed the sewers and knocked out drinking water.

"We've taken a hit," said manager Matthew Bouzemann, adding that normally up to 800 customers a day would be coming in for the oysters.

In the Panama City Beach area, there was no exodus of tourists, said Jennifer Jenkins, executive director for the Gulf County tourism council. But it wasn't business as usual.

"I think most people went to the grocery store, maybe bought some board games and just decided to hang out till it's over," she said.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.