Fla. commences cleanup as flood waters recede

By Brendan Farrington
Associated Press / August 23, 2008
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STEINHATCHEE, Fla. - As Tropical Storm Fay finally got on track yesterday to make its way out of Florida, flood-stricken homeowners got an encouraging sign: Muddy brown water lines began appearing on the sides of homes, a clue that flood waters were receding.

The storm's death toll rose to six in Florida and nearly 30 overall since Fay first struck in the Caribbean. Florida officials said four people died in traffic accidents in the heavy rain and two others drowned in surf kicked up by the storm. Before the storm blew through the state, a man testing generators as a precaution also was killed.

The fickle storm that stuck around for five days and carved a dizzying path that included three landfalls dumped more than 2 feet of rain in some places. But to the relief of Floridians, it was expected to veer west over the Panhandle before leaving for good later this weekend.

Officials in Melbourne, one of the hardest-hit areas on the central Atlantic coast, carried boats down streets where just a day earlier 4 feet of water made roads look like rivers. Water several feet high remained in some neighborhoods, but most of the area had drained, leaving behind a half-inch layer of muck and mud.

"This is a welcome sight," said Ron Salvatore, 69, who stood in his driveway yesterday morning boiling coffee on a propane grill and surveying a dry street. Salvatore and his wife, Terry, 59, had been stuck in the house since Tuesday because water surrounded their home.

Tens of thousands of people from Melbourne to Jacksonville to Gainesville were still without electricity, and residents of Florida's storm-stricken Atlantic coast faced a weekend of cleanup after chest-high flooding. Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said nearly 4,000 flood claims from Fay had been filed.

"The damage from Fay is a reminder that a tropical storm does not have to reach a hurricane level to be dangerous and cause significant damage," said Governor Charlie Crist, who toured flooded communities this week.

Yesterday, Crist asked the White House to elevate the disaster declaration President Bush issued Thursday to a major disaster declaration. Crist said the storm damaged 1,572 homes in Brevard County, dropping 25 inches of rain in Melbourne.

Counties in the Panhandle - including Bay, Escambia, and Walton - opened their emergency operations centers in preparation for the storm's expected arrival there.

In Steinhatchee, on the northern Gulf Coast just south of Florida's Big Bend, there was no wind and little rain as the center of the storm neared the town yesterday afternoon. But Dana Watson, a bartender at Crabbie Dads, said she was expecting it to get much worse. "It's moving real slow. We're waiting. We're just waiting."

In an area that can flood badly when high tide rolls in during a bad storm, she said most people remain prepared. "We've all got our generators filled up with gas and oil and our nonperishable food," Watson said. "Everyone in this town has made their preparations."

A tropical storm warning is in effect for Florida's Gulf Coast, from Aripeka in Hernando County to Destin. A tropical storm watch is still in effect from west of Destin to the Mississippi/Alabama border.

State officials and farmers were concerned that Fay had hurt tomato, peanut, and citrus crops. Damage estimates were not available.

Two tropical fish farms on the central Atlantic coast were decimated, state officials said. In Georgia, the Department of Natural Resources said a considerable number of nests of the threatened loggerhead sea turtle were washed away by the rain.

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