Tropical Storm Debby swamping Florida with heavy rains

The tropical storm system is nearly stationary over the Gulf of Mexico, producing torrential rainfall and some reported tornadoes.

Phil Sandlin/AP
High winds, high tide strike at the main street of Cedar Key, Fla., as Tropical Storm Debby makes it's way across the Gulf of Mexico early Sunday, June 24. Parts of Florida, including the Panhandle, remain under a tropical storm warning as Debby churns off the Gulf Coast.

Tropical Storm Debby spun drenching rains Monday over northern Florida as it hung nearly stationary over the Gulf of Mexico, making its biggest threat flooding rather than winds.

Tropical storm warnings were in effect along the Florida Panhandle as the storm parked offshore. Yet even with the storm's center far from land, it lashed Florida with heavy rains and spawned isolated tornadoes that killed at least one person.

And in Alabama, crews planned to continue searching for a South Carolina man who disappeared in rough surf Sunday afternoon. The man, whose name and hometown were not immediately released, was vacationing with his family when he went underwater around 1:45 p.m. Sunday, said Melvin Shepherd, director of beach safety for Orange Beach, Ala.

The storm also prompted the closing of a bridge to St. George Island, a popular vacation island in Florida.

Residents in several counties near the crook of Florida's elbow were urged to leave low-lying neighborhoods because of the threat of flooding. High winds forced the closure of an interstate bridge that spans Tampa Bay and links St. Petersburg with areas to the southeast. In several locations, homes and businesses were damaged by high winds authorities believe were from tornadoes.

Authorities in the Tampa Bay area were asking residents and tourists to stay away from flooded streets. Some streets were still under water early Monday, while others were blocked with debris.

The constant barrage of wind and rain triggered fears of the widespread flooding that occurred across the Florida Panhandle during Hurricane Dennis in 2005. Officials on Monday said the main bridge to St. George Island was closed as the storm loomed. Power was already out on the island and authorities said it could be out for days.

As of 8 a.m. EDT Monday, Debby's center was essentially stationary about 90 miles (145 kilometers) south-southwest of Apalachicola, Fla. Debby's top sustained winds were around 50 mph (85 kph) with little change in strength expected over the next day or so. The forecast map indicated the storm could inch forward through the week, eventually coming ashore over the Panhandle. However, a storm's path is difficult to discern days in advance.

Underscoring the unpredictable nature of tropical storms, forecasters discontinued a tropical storm warning Sunday afternoon for Louisiana after forecast models indicated Debby wasn't likely to turn west. At one point, forecasters expected the storm to come ashore in that state.

"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.

A major concern will be flooding from heavy rainfall. The storm is moving slowly, allowing its 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.

The Highlands County Sheriff's Office said in a news release that several tornadoes moved through the area southeast of Tampa, damaging homes.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Nell Hays said a woman was found dead in a house in Venus that was destroyed in the storm. A child found in the same house was taken to the hospital. No further information was available on the child's condition or either person's age.

Authorities urged residents to leave low-lying neighborhoods in Franklin, Taylor and Wakulla counties because of flooding. Shelters were open in the area.

Wind tore the roof off a marina in St. Pete Beach, and a pier was heavily damaged, said Tom Iovino, a Pinellas County government spokesman. He said no injuries were reported.

As of Sunday, 23 percent of oil and gas production in the region had been suspended, according to a government hurricane response team. Employees have been evacuated from 13 drilling rigs and 61 production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm was not expected to result in higher oil and gas prices.

"It's largely a non-event for oil," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.

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