4 dead, 1 missing as sodden Florida bids Debby good-bye

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(CNN) — Post-Tropical Cyclone Debby headed into the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday after leaving four people dead and one missing, and deluging Florida with buckets of rain that triggered flooding statewide.

The storm lost its tropical characteristics late Wednesday and was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph, the National Weather Service said. No further public advisories were going to be issued, the service said.

The four deaths occurred in four different counties: one each in Pinellas, Highlands, Lake and Polk counties, Florida’s State Emergency Response Team said Wednesday.

The Polk County death was a 21-year-old woman whose vehicle hydroplaned and crashed, said Jessica Sims, spokeswoman for the emergency team.

In Pinellas County, Armando Perez, 71, was found face down in floodwater outside his Indian Rocks home, county officials said. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be drowning, with heart disease as a contributory factor, authorities said.

“According to detectives working with the medical examiner’s office, Mr. Perez may have suffered a heart attack serious enough to incapacitate him, so that he collapsed and could not remove himself from the floodwaters,” the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

The death in Highlands County came when a tornado struck the town of Venus, Florida, about 100 miles southeast of Tampa.

Heather Town, 32, died while trying to shelter her 3-year-old daughter, officials said. The twister flung her nearly 300 feet into surrounding woods, the state emergency response team said. She was found still cradling her child, who was being treated at a hospital Sunday, officials said.

The State Emergency Response Team initially said three people had died, then briefly decreased the total to two before reconfirming the Pinellas County man’s death was storm-related, Sims said.

Authorities did not release details of the death in Lake County, beyond confirming that one life had been lost.

In Alabama, the search continued Wednesday for a 32-year-old man who went missing Sunday while swimming off the coast of Orange Beach, according to Battalion Chief Kevin Lanford of Orange Beach Fire-Rescue.

On Wednesday, authorities in Florida’s Pasco County lifted an evacuation order for flooded residents and businesses between the Anclote and Pithlachascotee Rivers, officials said.

More than 7,000 residential and commercial addresses, which were evacuated, were hit by flooding waters, and power had been restored to about 1,800 of the homes, authorities said.

Seventy-three county residents stayed in shelters Tuesday night, county spokesman Eric Keaton said Wednesday. Pasco County is north of Tampa.

Debby made landfall as a tropical storm on Florida’s northern Gulf Coast Tuesday and weakened while crossing the northern portion of the state.

Rain had finally moved out of the region Wednesday, according to National Weather Service radar, but flood warnings remained in effect across northern Florida. All tropical weather watches and warnings were canceled.

“Rainfall associated with Debby will continue to diminish across the Florida peninsula today,” forecasters said. “Additional isolated rainfall amounts of up to 1 inch will be possible in some of the lingering rain bands, mainly over southern Florida.”

In Venice, Florida, about 60 miles south of St. Petersburg, CNN iReporter Bob Wilder sent pictures of heavy surf.

“The rain has pretty much slowed down, though we did have a pretty heavy squall pass over the house a few minutes ago,” he said. “This storm has been different in that it has hung around for so long. Normally, we’ll have a day of heavy weather and that’s it. Two or three days of on-again, off-again rain and constant wind is a bit unusual.”

“I expect that once the surf calms down, the surfers will be out,” he said. “The only time the surfing is good in this part of Florida is during or right after a storm.”

While forecasters said floodwaters in some areas of Florida will begin subsiding Wednesday, some rivers, particularly in the western parts of the state, were still rising and others beginning to crest.

The worst flooding Wednesday was south of Tallahassee in Wakulla and Franklin counties, which received more than 20 inches of rain, said Julie Roberts, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Interstate 10 remained closed in both directions in Columbia and Baker counties, she said.

Evacuations, either voluntary or mandatory, were in place in many areas. Roberts said more may take place near the Black Creek River in Hamilton County.

As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, more than 5,468 Floridians in 17 counties were without power, the State Emergency Response Team said.

“While Tropical Storm Debby was downgraded to a tropical depression last night, Florida continues to feel the impacts from the storm,” Gov. Rick Scott said in the statement.

Franklin County, just east of Apalachicola, was among the hardest-hit areas, emergency officials said. Reopening St. George Island is vital to the county’s economy, and the team said it was working to ensure all resources were available for a quick recovery. St. George Island is a popular tourist destination.

More than 100 people scrambled to escape rapidly rising water Tuesday near the St. Marys River on the Florida-Georgia border, according to CNN affiliate WJXT. Some men had to use a boat to get back to their homes and rescue their children.

“I’m the furthest one out (from the water), which means I’m the last to go under, and I’m going under,” resident George Rhoden told the station.

“Everybody behind me is in bad shape. It’s rising 10 inches per hour. We got to go. Everybody got to leave.”

Debby paralyzed whole neighborhoods for days.

“Sadly, my car didn’t make it through the flooding. My car was just too low, and (the water) ended up hydro-locking the vehicle,” Magalie Caragiorgio of New Port Richey, who missed two days of work because of the flooding, said Tuesday. “I haven’t been able to get my car towed due to the amount of cars being stranded.”

As of 11 a.m. ET Wednesday, Debby was centered about 90 miles east of St. Augustine, Florida, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm was moving east at 10 mph, carrying maximum sustained winds of 35 mph.

While Florida is no stranger to tropical weather, many residents said they had never seen flooding like that resulting from Debby.

“It’s astonishing,” Keith Blackmar of the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday. “… Our soil is sandy, so it handles water well, but not this much rain.”

In Sopchoppy, authorities rescued 57 people from homes surrounded by rising water, Blackmar said.

“The water levels came up so fast, some of the folks didn’t have time to actually pack their things and move out,” said Maj. Maurice Langston with the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office.

Florida State University researcher Jeff Chanton said the area’s low-lying terrain has contributed to the misery.

“The coastal gradient — the rise of the land — is very, very low here,” Chanton said. “If you were to go swimming here and walk out from shore, you could walk out half a mile.” That means a relatively small storm surge can push water “tens or hundreds of feet onshore,” he said.

More than 26 inches of rain was recorded in Sanborn, south of Tallahassee, by Tuesday. Nearby St. Marks saw nearly 22 inches.

President Barack Obama called Scott Tuesday “to ensure the state had no unmet needs as the governor and his team continue to respond to extreme weather and flooding,” the White House said.

At the state’s request, a Federal Emergency Management Agency liaison officer was on site at the Florida state emergency operations center, according to the White House.

CNN’s Ashley Hayes, George Howell, Matt Smith, Sarah Dillingham, Rich Phillips and Michael Martinez contributed to this report.

By the CNN Wire Staff
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