3 storm deaths reported in Florida
(CNN) — Tropical Depression Debby headed into the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday after killing three people and deluging Florida with buckets of rain that triggered flooding statewide.
The deaths were in Pinellas, Highlands and Polk counties, Florida’s State Emergency Response Team said Wednesday.
The Polk County death was a woman whose vehicle hydroplaned and crashed, said Jessica Sims, spokeswoman for the emergency team.
The death in Highlands County came Sunday when a tornado struck the town of Venus, Florida, about 100 miles southeast of Tampa.
Heather Town, 32, died while trying to shelter her 3-year-old daughter, officials said. The twister flung her about 200 feet into surrounding woods; she was found still cradling her child, who was being treated at a hospital Sunday.
The emergency team initially said there were three deaths, but briefly decreased the total to two amid questions about whether the Pinellas County death was storm-related. Sims said the county medical examiner reconfirmed the death was a result of the storm. Details of the third death were not immediately available.
Thousands remain evacuated from their waterlogged homes. In Florida’s Pasco County alone, 7,000 homes and commercial properties remained under an evacuation order, county spokesman Eric Keaton said Wednesday. Seventy-three county residents stayed in shelters Tuesday night, Keaton said.
Authorities were allowing residents who present identification at checkpoints to enter their homes temporarily on a case-by-case basis, he said. Pasco County is north of Tampa.
Debby made landfall as a tropical storm on Florida’s northern Gulf Coast Tuesday and weakened while crossing the northern portion of the state.
Rain had finally moved out of the region Wednesday, according to National Weather Service radar, but flood warnings remained in effect across northern Florida. All tropical weather watches and warnings were canceled.
“Rainfall associated with Debby will continue to diminish across the Florida peninsula today,” forecasters said. “Additional isolated rainfall amounts of up to 1 inch will be possible in some of the lingering rain bands, mainly over southern Florida.”
In Venice, Florida, about 60 miles south of St. Petersburg, CNN iReporter Bob Wilder sent pictures of heavy surf.
“The rain has pretty much slowed down, though we did have a pretty heavy squall pass over the house a few minutes ago,” he said. “This storm has been different in that it has hung around for so long. Normally, we’ll have a day of heavy weather and that’s it. Two or three days of on-again, off-again rain and constant wind is a bit unusual.”
“I expect that once the surf calms down, the surfers will be out,” he said. “The only time the surfing is good in this part of Florida is during or right after a storm.”
While forecasters said floodwaters in some areas of Florida will begin subsiding Wednesday, some rivers, particularly in the western parts of the state, were still rising and others beginning to crest.
The worst flooding Wednesday was south of Tallahassee in Wakulla and Franklin counties, which received more than 20 inches of rain, said Julie Roberts, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Interstate 10 remained closed in both directions in Columbia and Baker counties, she said.
Evacuations, either voluntary or mandatory, were in place in many areas. Roberts said more may take place near the Black Creek River in Hamilton County.
As of 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, more than 11,000 Floridians in 39 counties were without power, the State Emergency Response Team said.
“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 in the statement.
Franklin County, just east of Apalachicola, was among the hardest-hit areas, emergency officials said. Reopening St. George Island is vital to the county’s economy, and the team said it was working to ensure all resources were available for a quick recovery.
More than 100 people scrambled to escape rapidly rising water Tuesday near the St. Marys River on the Florida-Georgia border, according to CNN affiliate WJXT. Some men had to use a boat to get back to their homes and rescue their children.
“I’m the furthest one out (from the water), which means I’m the last to go under, and I’m going under,” resident George Rhoden told the station.
“Everybody behind me is in bad shape. It’s rising 10 inches per hour. We got to go. Everybody got to leave.”
Debby paralyzed whole neighborhoods for days.
“Sadly, my car didn’t make it through the flooding. My car was just too low, and (the water) ended up hydro-locking the vehicle,” Magalie Caragiorgio of New Port Richey, who missed two days of work because of the flooding, said Tuesday. “I haven’t been able to get my car towed due to the amount of cars being stranded.”
As of 11 a.m. ET Wednesday, Debby was centered about 90 miles east of St. Augustine, Florida, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm was moving east at 10 mph, carrying maximum sustained winds of 35 mph.
While Florida is no stranger to tropical weather, many residents said they had never seen flooding like that resulting from Debby.
“It’s astonishing,” Keith Blackmar of the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday. “… Our soil is sandy, so it handles water well, but not this much rain.”
In Sopchoppy, authorities rescued 57 people from homes surrounded by rising water, Blackmar said.
“The water levels came up so fast, some of the folks didn’t have time to actually pack their things and move out,” said Maj. Maurice Langston with the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office.
Florida State University researcher Jeff Chanton said the area’s low-lying terrain has contributed to the misery.
“The coastal gradient — the rise of the land — is very, very low here,” Chanton said. “If you were to go swimming here and walk out from shore, you could walk out half a mile.” That means a relatively small storm surge can push water “tens or hundreds of feet onshore,” he said.
More than 26 inches of rain was recorded in Sanborn, south of Tallahassee, by Tuesday. Nearby St. Marks saw nearly 22 inches.
President Barack Obama called Scott Tuesday “to ensure the state had no unmet needs as the governor and his team continue to respond to extreme weather and flooding,” the White House said.
At the state’s request, a Federal Emergency Management Agency liaison officer was on site at the Florida state emergency operations center, according to the White House.
CNN’s George Howell, Matt Smith, Sarah Dillingham and Rich Phillips contributed to this report.