Austin Tinker floats on flood waters from Tropical Storm Debby in downtown Live Oak, Fla. on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Matt Stamey)
ST. GEORGE ISLAND, Fla. (AP) — Debby was expected to head out into the Atlantic on Wednesday, but forecasters warn that the weakened storm still posed a flooding and tornado threat even if it doesn't pack the same punch.
The National Hurricane Center downgraded Debby from a tropical storm to a tropical depression Tuesday night as it slogged across northern Florida toward the Atlantic coast.
But forecasters said a combination of storm surge and tide could bring flooding to coastal areas that have already been drenched by the storm that sat virtually motionless in the Gulf of Mexico for several days.
There was already major flooding at Black Creek, as well as several other rivers in the Jacksonville region, National Weather Service meteorologist Angie Enyedi said. She said tornadoes could form to the east and the southeast of the storm.
The hurricane center said late Tuesday that Debby was 110 miles west of Daytona Beach and moving southeastward at 7 mph. The storm was expected to veer east-northeast and pick up speed, then cross the northern Florida peninsula overnight and head out to sea.
But many in Debby's path were still recovering from flooding that damaged homes, washed out roads, opened up sinkholes and closed a section of Interstate 10 — the state's main east-west highway.
Vacationers were wearing ponchos instead of swimsuits at the peak of the summer season because of the tropical storm, which has drenched Florida for at least four days straight like a giant shower head set up over the state's Gulf Coast. Debby has dumped as much as 26 inches of rain in some spots.
Disney World wasn't as crowded as usual, and one of its water parks closed because of the soggy, windy weather.
Along the Florida Panhandle, the parking lot at the 100-room Buccaneer Inn was empty because of a power outage ahead of the usually big pre-July Fourth weekend.
"We've had bad luck on this island," said the inn's vice president, JoAnn Shiver. "We've had Dennis. We've had Katrina. We had the oil spill."
In a state where the biggest attractions are the sand and the sun, Debby forced many to make other plans.
Douglas and Carolyn Green of Nashville, Tenn., were supposed to spend a week on St. George Island with three generations of family, but arrived to find the electricity was out and the bridge closed to non-residents for fear of looters. They spent Monday night in nearby Apalachicola, and then all nine relatives headed to Fort Walton Beach.
"We never saw the island," said Douglas Green. "We're moving on. Plan B, I guess you'd call it."
Debby finally blew ashore Tuesday afternoon near Steinhatchee in the Big Bend area, the crook of Florida's elbow. At that point, it had sustained winds near 40 mph — barely a tropical storm — hours before it was downgraded.
Several areas in northern Florida have received more than 10 inches of rain. Forecasters had said southeastern Georgia could expect the same, but that risk was reduced when the storm turned eastward Tuesday night. Wakulla, an area in northwestern Florida known for camping and canoeing, had gotten more than 26 inches as of Tuesday.
A woman was killed in a tornado spun off from the storm Sunday, and a man disappeared in the rough surf over the weekend in Alabama. The storm knocked out power to 250,000 homes and business starting last weekend, but electricity had been restored to all but about 15,000 Progress Energy customers by midday Tuesday. Debby has caused mostly scattered flooding and opened up sinkholes, but forecasters warned it could get worse.
"Even though the winds are coming down, the rain threat continues," said James Franklin at the hurricane center. "We expect another 4 to 8 inches, in some of these areas up in north Florida, in particular."
President Barack Obama called Florida Gov. Rick Scott and promised the state will have "no unmet needs" as it deals with the flooding, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
In New Port Richey, a suburb about 30 miles north of Tampa, most of the 170-plus elevated homes at the Suncoast Gateway park for retirees had water underneath them. Several dozen homeowners decided to stay, despite having no electricity or tap water.
Some of those who left returned by kayak to collect their belongings.
Luisa Santoro decided to flee Tuesday. Wearing rubber boots, she returned briefly to get her cat.
"My cat is atop the furniture," she said in Spanish, adding that her home was dry but that she feared a swollen retention pond nearby would rise further.
Portions of Interstate 10, the main east-west highway across northern Florida, were shut down because of flooding.
WJXT-TV was reporting that as of 9 p.m. Tuesday, a 50-mile stretch of the interstate remained closed between U.S. 90 and the Interstate 75 interchange.
In Apalachicola, the hugely popular Boss Oyster restaurant was closed for the third day in a row after the rain overwhelmed the sewers and knocked out drinking water.
"We've taken a hit," said manager Matthew Bouzemann, adding that normally up to 800 customers a day would be coming in for the oysters.
In the Panama City Beach area, there was no exodus of tourists, said Jennifer Jenkins, executive director for the Gulf County tourism council. But it wasn't business as usual.
"I think most people went to the grocery store, maybe bought some board games and just decided to hang out till it's over," she said.