Monday, July 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Debby is done but damage and death left behind emerge

The wind and water that lashed Tampa Bay while Tropical Storm Debby brooded over the Gulf Coast began to relent Wednesday, easing off a region struggling to reclaim its workaday routine. Electricity was restored to thousands and roads reopened to eager commuters, but corpses were also found floating in waterways swollen by days of rain.

An Indian Rocks Beach man who drowned in shallow floodwater near his home Sunday was confirmed as the first area fatality caused by Debby, and the third in Florida. In Largo and New Port Richey, police retrieved two other bodies from the water. Authorities did not suspect foul play in either case, but could not yet say whether the deaths were storm-related.

The grisly discoveries underscored the dangers that persist in flooded areas, particularly southwest Pasco County. While officials lifted a mandatory evacuation order for about 7,000 homes and businesses there Wednesday, several roads remain submerged.

Early in the day, emergency crews evacuated more than two dozen residents at the Suncoast Gateway Mobile Village in Port Richey, where the power was shut off because floodwaters were lapping over electrical boxes. It could be days before it is safe for those residents to return.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said some of the houses along Elfers Parkway — where a body was discovered along the Anclote River — are in deep, fast-moving water.

"Don't take anything for granted," Nocco said. "We don't want anybody harmed, we don't want anybody killed because of the situation."

The storm ground eastward across Florida on Tuesday and early Wednesday, weakening as it went. The National Hurricane Center downgraded Debby, first to a tropical depression and then to a post-tropical cyclone Wednesday evening as the blob of weather pushed out to sea.

At 5 p.m., the hurricane center released its last update on the storm that had baffled and befuddled the state for days.

Along the way, it brought more than 10 inches of rain to northern parts of the state, after dousing the Tampa Bay area with as much as 15 inches in some places earlier in the week.

In the Panhandle, some people were using boats to retrieve valuables from their homes. Wakulla County Commission Chairman Alan Brock said residents can't remember flooding ever being this bad.

"It's pretty heartbreaking. It's people who have built on hills and never expected water and because of that don't have flood insurance and now their homes are destroyed," Brock said.

As the landscape left behind by Debby came into focus, not all the news was bad. Light rain and persistent flooding could still be a problem in parts of Tampa Bay in the coming days. But by and large, the region will have a chance to dry out.

"The worst is over," said National Weather Service meteorologist Anthony Reynes.

There's a less than 20 percent chance for rain over the weekend, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Juli Marquez. Forecasters said returning sun should bring high temperatures more typical of June.

"This weekend's going to be a lot different than last weekend," Marquez said.

As the weather improved, utility workers gained ground on the tens of thousands of homes and businesses where the storm knocked out the lights. TECO had whittled the number of power outages in its service area down to 63 Wednesday morning, from 2,000 Tuesday and 20,000 Sunday.

Progress Energy reported 1,300 customers without power Wednesday morning in Pinellas, down from 7,700 Tuesday. In Pasco, however, 2,700 remained without power. Progress spokesman Rob Sumner said workers had not been able to do many repairs in that area due to the floods.

"We have to make sure that it's safe to go in," he said. "We just ask for people's understanding on this."

The decrease in local outages mirrored a statewide decline. On Tuesday, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported about 37,000 customers without power in 47 counties. On Wednesday morning, that number was reduced to 11,951 customers across 39 counties.

Major roadways reopened. The Sunshine Skyway opened for traffic early Wednesday after Tropical Storm Debby's fierce gusts closed the bridge for three days, the longest shutdown in the history of the bridge. Since Sunday, the more than 50,000 motorists who typically cross the bridge daily were forced to make a tedious detour on Interstate 75.

In Tampa, Bayshore Boulevard reopened, after city workers labored well past midnight to clear the road of mud, seaweed, debris and driftwood. Bus routes in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties returned to their normal schedules, transit officials said.

As the roads and power lines ravaged by the past days' weather were successfully repaired, Tropical Storm Debby's human cost became more evident.

An autopsy Wednesday confirmed the first death in the Tampa Bay area related to the storm.

A neighbor found Armando Perez, 71, floating face-down in floodwater outside his home at 1906 2nd St., in Indian Rocks Beach late Sunday afternoon. The Medical Examiner's Office and Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said Perez had a heart attack, collapsed in the water and drowned. His death will be reported to the state as storm-related.

His family told detectives he was waiting outside for his son to pick him up because of the storm. At its deepest, the water around his house was knee-high.

Two other deaths in Florida have so far been attributed to Debby. A 32-year-old Highlands County woman was killed by a tornado, and a man drowned after his canoe capsized on Lake Dorr, in Ocala National Forest.

The storm might have also claimed more victims here.

In New Port Richey, Pasco sheriff's deputies are investigating the death of a man whose body washed up Wednesday morning in a flooded area along the Anclote River.

A caller reported the body about 11 a.m. near Elfers Parkway, a roadway submerged by flooding. Authorities would not release any information about the identity of the man, other than to say he was middle-aged and white. They have identified him but had not yet reached his next of kin.

There were no signs of foul play or trauma to the body, and at this point the death is not considered suspicious, said Doug Tobin, a spokesman for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Detectives are waiting for the medical examiner to determine the cause of death.

In Largo, pedestrians discovered a homeless man's body about 7:40 a.m. Wednesday floating in the Cross Bayou Canal, a storm-swollen channel of water that cuts behind the Pinellas Safe Harbor shelter.

The body was found near a bridge on 150th Avenue, just off 49th Street N. A preliminary examination of the body did not suggest foul play, and there were "no obvious signs of a struggle," Largo police Lt. Mike Loux said.

He said it was not yet clear whether the death was storm-related. The body was taken to the medical examiner. Police identified him but were not releasing his name as they sought to notify his next of kin.

The man was carrying an identification issued by Safe Harbor, a shelter by the county jail that sits just south of where the body was discovered.

Angie Stone, who lives down the road, leaned on her fence watching the scene. She said flooding from Debby had been a problem in the neighborhood, with water rising into her daughter's bedroom.

She said she often sees transients from Safe Harbor walking up and down her street.

"They'd be walking up and down here and they'd be coming through the cut sometimes," Stone said.

Her young daughter was beside her, looking up the road toward the black, debris-laden canal. Police were loading the stranger's body onto a gurney.

"He was probably trying to go home, Mama," she said.

Times staff writers Bridget Grumet, Erin Sullivan and Michael Finch II contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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