Tropical Storm Fay floods hundreds of Fla. homes

August 20, 2008 6:51:15 PM PDT
Steve Grenon sat in the bed of his pickup truck Wednesday in front of his house, staring out at a street that now looks more like a wind-whipped lake, whitecaps and all.

He's been stuck in his house for two days, unable to leave with water that's risen as high as six feet deep blocking his driveway. The 40-year-old's home was surrounded by water that overflowed from nearby canals.

"It's like a moat. There's water all the way around," Grenon said, sweeping his hand out in front of him.

On Day Three of Tropical Storm Fay's slow, wet march across the state, emergency crews launched airboats into submerged streets, some trapped residents were rescued from homes, and the midway point on Florida's Atlantic coast turned into a swampy mess.

Calling the flooding "catastrophic," Gov. Charlie Crist requested an emergency disaster declaration from the federal government to defray rising debris and response costs. The White House said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was reviewing the request.

Authorities worried the murky brown waters that overflowed from canals would grow deeper as stop-and-go rains flowed from dismal, gray skies.

While there have been reports of flooded homes and rescues in counties up and down the coast, for many the storm was just a major inconvenience.

John DeMatthews, 51, walked four miles from his home with a few friends to grab supplies at the grocery store. He hasn't been able to move his car out of his driveway since Monday.

"Just the necessities," DeMatthews said, as he slogged through knee-deep water in the street, a white plastic bag slung over his shoulder. "Mayonnaise, cigarettes and coffee."

As many residents simply waited for the waters to recede, others had gone to work Tuesday and later found they couldn't get back home. Some of them were being shuttled on a Port St. Lucie police bus back to their houses.

"There's cars stranded all over," said Robert Vega, spokesman for the Port St. Lucie Police Department. "You can't tell what's a canal and what's a roadway out here. It's that bad."

Hundreds of homes were flooded in areas of Brevard and St. Lucie counties, some by up to 5 feet of standing water. In three towns, rising floodwaters backed up sewage systems, affecting up to 50,000 people, officials said.

It wasn't immediately clear how many residents were displaced or stranded, but authorities reported making dozens of rescues.

The storm could dump 30 inches of rain in some areas of Florida and the National Hurricane Center said up to 22 inches had already fallen near Melbourne, just south of Cape Canaveral on the state's central Atlantic coast.

By Wednesday evening, the storm's center had moved over the Atlantic Ocean, and its winds were picking up speed.

Forecasters expected the storm to strengthen slightly before turning back toward the mainland Thursday, when it will probably hit Florida for the third time this week. But National Hurricane Center meteorologist Corey Walton said it was unlikely the storm would gain enough energy over the water to reach hurricane strength.

At 8 p.m. Wednesday, the storm was just off Florida's east coast, about 45 miles east-southeast of Daytona Beach. Its maximum sustained winds climbed to 60 mph, and it was expected to move slowly toward the northwest overnight.

The erratic storm first struck Monday in the Florida Keys, then veered out to sea before traversing east across the state, briefly strengthening, then losing steam and stalling.

If Fay strikes Florida again, as expected, it would be just the fourth storm in recorded history to hit the peninsula with tropical storm intensity three separate times. The most recent was Hurricane Donna in 1960, said Daniel Brown, hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

In St. Lucie County an estimated 150 residents have been assisted in evacuating by boat or high-clearance vehicle, and water was 3 to 5 feet in some people's homes, Erick Gill, a county spokesman, said.

The Florida National Guard mobilized about a dozen guardsmen and some high-water vehicles to help with damage assessment and evacuations.

The storm was 30 miles north of Cape Canaveral at 5 p.m. EDT Wednesday. Its maximum sustained winds were about 50 mph and it was expected to resume slowly moving north later Wednesday at about 2 mph.

Fay formed over the weekend in the Atlantic and was blamed for 20 deaths in the Caribbean before hitting Florida's coast, where it fell short of predictions it could become a Category 1 hurricane.

Still, the heavy rains and wind made it dangerous at times.

Joe McMannis, 27, said he jumped into floodwaters to help three people in a submerged truck in Jensen Beach. McMannis said the driver accidentally drove into a retention pond, confusing it for a driveway.

"I didn't think it was going to be that deep," he said. "It pretty much came up to my ears and chin."

The rain was welcome in dry Florida and Georgia cropland, but could also hurt farmers' production. Forecasters predicted parts of northern Florida could get 10 to 15 inches of rain, while southern Georgia could receive 3 to 6 inches.

"They're probably areas of the state that found the rains very beneficial," said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

But McElroy said the rain could pool around and damage citrus trees and flood pastures and hay fields. He couldn't yet quantify damage.

Before moving east, the storm flooded streets in Naples, downed trees and cut power to some 95,000 homes and businesses. Tornadoes spawned by the storm damaged 51 homes in Brevard County, southeast of Orlando, including nine homes that were totaled. In the Keys, officials estimated 25,000 tourists evacuated.

In Florida communities north of the flooding and in southeast Georgia, storm preparations included canceling school, clearing storm drains and ditches and encouraging mobile home residents to find sturdier shelter.

Associated Press Writer Russ Bynum reported from Savannah, Ga.; Ron Word reported from Jacksonville, Fla.; Kelli Kennedy, Matt Sedensky and Travis Reed, Curt Anderson and Lisa Orkin Emmanuel reported from Miami; Christine Armario reported in Tampa, Bill Kaczor and Brendan Farrington reported from Tallahassee and Sarah Larimer from Orlando.


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