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Tropical Storm Debby soaks Florida’s Gulf Coast

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Practically parked off Florida’s Gulf Coast since the weekend, Tropical Storm Debby raked the Tampa Bay area with high wind and heavy rain Monday in a drenching that could top 2 feet over the next few days and trigger widespread flooding.

At least one person was killed on Sunday by a tornado spun off by Debby in Florida, and Alabama authorities searched for a man who has disappeared in the rough surf.

An estimated 35,000 homes and businesses lost electricity. But as of midafternoon, the slow-moving storm had caused only scattered damage, including flooding in some low-lying areas.

The bridge leading to St. George Island, a vacation spot along the Florida Panhandle, was closed to everyone except residents, renters and business owners to keep looters out. The island had no power, and palm trees had been blown down, but roads were passable.

“Most true islanders are hanging in there because they know that you may or may not be able to get back to your home when you need to,” said David Walker, an island resident having a beer at Eddy Teach’s bar. He said he had been through many storms on the island and Debby was on the weaker end of the scale.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a statewide emergency, allowing authorities to put laws against price-gouging into effect and override bureaucratic hurdles to deal with the storm.

By late afternoon, Debby was in the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles southwest of Apalachicola, with sustained winds around 45 mph.

Forecasters said it would crawl to the northeast, come ashore along Florida’s northwestern coast on Wednesday and track slowly across the state, exiting along the Atlantic Coast by Saturday morning and losing steam along the way.

Several parts of northern Florida could get up to 10 to 15 inches of rain, and some spots as much as 25 inches, as the storm wrings itself out completely, forecasters said.

“The widespread flooding is the biggest concern,” said Florida Emergency Operations Center spokeswoman Julie Roberts. “It’s a concern that Debby is going to be around for the next couple of days, and while it sits there, it’s going to continue to drop rain. The longer it sits, the more rain we get.”

High winds and the threat of flooding forced the closing of an interstate highway bridge that spans Tampa Bay and links St. Petersburg with areas to the southwest.

Nearby, a likely tornado ripped the roof off a marina and an apartment complex and knocked down fences, trees and signs.

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