Tropical storm Debby lashes across Florida, spares Gulf oil rigs (+videos)

Strong winds and heavy rains from tropical storm Debby threaten to drench central Florida, but meteorologists say the slow-moving storm is already weakening.

By , Staff writer

Tropical storm Debby is dumping bucket loads of rain on the west coast of Florida in places like Tampa, Brooksville, and St. Petersburg.

The rain is expected to continue for the next several days because the storm is sitting nearly stationary in the Gulf of Mexico about 90 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola. Once it starts to move, it’s expected to come ashore – maybe as late as Thursday morning – along the low-lying west coast of Florida, perhaps around Cedar Key.

But, where will it go from there?

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Meteorologists expect it will continue across Florida, lashing Gainesville and Ocala before heading for the eastern part of the state. The exact path is still not certain, but meteorologist Eric Leister of AccuWeather.com expects it will cross the state somewhere between Orlando and Jacksonville. The storm’s path across the state is also likely to result in yet more flooding. “It will probably take a whole day to cross Florida,” says Mr. Leister.

At the moment, computer projections indicate that once Debby exits the east coast of Florida, it will head out to sea. “Even if it turns north, it will still stay a good ways off the east coast,” forecasts Leister. “We are thinking it will move quickly off to the east and then just weaken.”

Once the storm moves out into the Atlantic it might pose some sort of risk to Bermuda, says Leister.

However, before that happens, some parts of the Sunshine State will be decidedly wet.

“Really, from now through Thursday, they will have the potential for periods of locally heavy rain – 4 to 8 inches. Some places could see another foot,” says Leister. “There will be some places that in a week will get more rain than they get in a year.”

The combination of strong winds and heavy rain has already created flooding in some parts of the state.

“We’re flooded everywhere,” says Santa Blouse, the co-owner of the Cedar Key Marina. “The main boat ramp downtown is torn apart from the wind – it was like a hurricane on Sunday.”

“There were some pretty serious wind gusts,” she says. “It was pretty scary.”

If the storm just dumped rain, Ms. Blouse says, it would be welcome, since the area has been in a drought. She says the community has had to resort to using bottled water, because salt water has gotten into the area’s wells due to the low fresh water level. “We actually need a lot of rain,” she says.

Further to the west, around the resort community of Panama City, the wind has already subsided, says Scott Clemons, the former mayor. “I think we’ve dodged the bullet,” says Mr. Clemons. “But a couple of more inches of rain without the wind would be great."

On Monday at 2 p.m., weather radar showed a large band of showers and thunderstorms heading east from Cape Coral to Lakeland. Another large band of rain was pummeling the panhandle just east of Panama City.

Once Debby starts moving to the east or northeast, the oil and gas industry will also breathe a sigh of relief. Just to the west of Debby are a large number of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Some offshore platforms were shut down, as the oil companies decided it was better to prepare for the worst. By Monday, for example, Shell Oil said it had restarted operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

“By the end of day Tuesday, we will be back to normal operations across the Gulf,” says Shell Oil on its website.

“Debby is no longer a threat to the oil and gas industry,” says Leister. “Florida is just going to have weather-out the storm at this point."

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