Meanwhile, as Florida and Georgia prepared to endure the storm over the coming days, some farmers in the region hoped a soaking would boost crops hurt by a lingering drought.
In Jacksonville, business was brisk at grocery stores and gas stations as people prepared for Fay's arrival. Velton Jones, manager at a discount department store, said early Wednesday he was selling basics such as water, flashlights, emergency supplies and cigarettes.
"The storm's coming, people want to have their cigarettes," Jones said. "I expect it's going to be chaotic in here today."
Rodney Van Buren was among the customers, buying disposable diapers, ice and other things.
"We're not scared, just being cautious," he said. "We don't want to wait until the last minute."
The storm first hit the Florida Keys, veered out to sea and then traversed east across the state on a path that would have taken it over the ocean before it curved toward the Florida-Georgia border. Forecasters expected the storm to get a dose of energy Wednesday when it moved over the Atlantic Ocean, where it could linger and possibly reach hurricane strength.
But the storm's center remained just inland early Wednesday and forecasters said it may not go over the ocean until the afternoon. The chances of Fay becoming a hurricane were shrinking, the National Hurricane Center said.
But a hurricane watch remained in effect for parts of north Florida and Georgia. A tropical storm warning was extended, covering an area from north of Jupiter Inlet to Altamaha Sound in Georgia. A warning means such conditions are expected within 24 hours, while a watch means such conditions are possible within 36 hours.
"This storm is going to be with us for a while. That's obvious now. It looks like it could be a boomerang storm," Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday, urging residents to be vigilant for what could be the storm's third hit to the state.
The storm was on Florida's east coast at 5 a.m. EDT Wednesday, about 15 miles south of Cape Canaveral. Its maximum sustained winds remained near 50 mph. The storm was moving toward the north near 5 mph.
And while forecasters warned rainfall from the storm could just as easily be catastrophic as benign, farmers in drought-plagued areas were cautiously optimistic.
"It's very seldom we're hoping for a hurricane, but we are," said Randy Branch, a farmer in southeast Georgia where lingering drought has left about a third of his cotton and peanut crops bare this summer.
"We need some rain pretty bad."
National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Letro said it's possible southern Georgia could receive 10 to 20 inches of rain - enough to cause severe flooding - if it makes a second landfall.
"I know people hate drought, but when you're talking about a tropical cyclone relieving drought conditions, be careful what you wish for," said Letro, the chief meteorologist in Jacksonville, Fla.
In Duval County, which surrounds Jacksonville, officials prepared shelters, cleared drainage areas that could flood and readied emergency response teams. Public schools canceled Wednesday and Thursday classes, and mobile home residents were encouraged to find sturdier shelter.
"Our biggest concern is complacency. Jacksonville has a history of being shielded from storm systems. While we don't want anyone to panic, we want everyone in the area to take this storm seriously," said Misty Skipper, a county spokeswoman.
In Georgia's southeastern corner, Camden County had public works crews cleaning out storm drains and ditches in preparation for possible flooding. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency also began 24-hour operations Tuesday afternoon to monitor the storm.
A National Hurricane Center forecast late Tuesday projected that the storm's path would take it through Alabama over the weekend. However, projections varied widely, prompting some in South Carolina to hope for crop-sating rain.
"I just came in from the fields. Everything is burning up," said Belton, S.C., farmer Charles Campbell. "If a storm is brewing tornadoes. Counties in the storm's path called off school for Wednesday and opened shelters.
Associated Press Writer Curt Anderson and Lisa Orkin Emmanuel reported from Miami. Associated Press Writers Christine Armario reported in Tampa, Tamara Lush reported in Punta Gorda, Bill Kaczor and Brendan Farrington reported from Tallahassee and Sarah Larimer contributed from Orlando.