Fay turns northwest toward Panhandle

CRYSTAL RIVER — Tropical Storm Fay staggered across north-central Florida toward the Panhandle on Friday, taking aim at the last section of the state yet to be touched by its five-day downpour of misery.

As it sloshed its way westward, the storm's outer bands promised a soggy weekend for the Tampa Bay area, too.

Although Fay has never achieved hurricane strength, state officials blame the storm for the deaths of seven people in Florida so far, two of them tourists who drowned. A tornado touched down in Lake Wales in Polk County on Friday evening, damaging four homes and a bridge but injuring no one.

Gov. Charlie Crist called Fay "devastating, dangerous and deadly." In Brevard County alone, preliminary damage estimates totaled $53-million.

By Friday afternoon, the torrential rain that Fay dumped on the state included 26.65 inches in Melbourne, 22.83 at Cape Canaveral and 20.75 at Palm Shores. Fay is expected to produce 4 to 8 inches of rain over the northern Florida peninsula, the Florida Panhandle, South Georgia and southeastern Alabama, with isolated amounts of 12 inches possible.

Everywhere Fay has traveled so far, flooding has followed. In Deltona, carp and mallards swam past submerged mailboxes. In Jacksonville, the St. Johns River overflowed its banks, sending ripples across nearby roads. In Orlando, officials urged residents to limit the use of showers, washing machines and dishwashers because they feared the heavy rain would back up the sewer system.

And in Melbourne, airport officials had to clear four walking catfish off the runway before a Delta Air Lines jet could land.

Tropical Storm Fay's floodwaters have sent critters by the dozen crawling from their homes. In Jupiter, residents have dropped off about a hundred displaced animals at the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, mostly baby rabbits, squirrels, turtles and birds. Executive director David Hitzig and his staff have been busy treating the injured animals.

In Citrus County, Fay's outer bands began inundating places like Floral City early on Friday, dumping more than 4 1/2 inches by day's end.

At a waterfront restaurant in Crystal River called Cracker's Bar, Grill & Tiki, the waves from Kings Bay lapped higher and higher, with high tide approaching. But even as rain slanted in from the west, diners still sat at the tiki bar as if it were just another sun-drenched day on the Nature Coast.

"People like this kind of crazy stuff," grumbled owner David Garrick. "I don't."

He remembers the last time the tiki bar flooded. It was the infamous No-Name Storm of 1993, when a tidal surge as high as 12 feet in some places swamped houses, smashed cars, scooped up furniture, appliances and boats, causing more than $500-million in property damage on just the gulf coast. Fay's storm surge should not top 4 feet, the National Hurricane Center predicted.

Down the road in Homosassa, the continuing drizzle had already flooded the parking lot at Tropical Window Tinting, owned by Karl and Marie LaFollette. Mrs. LaFollette, 44, said the flooding had hurt her business, which caters to people with nice cars. She said well-dressed professionals have to hold up their pants to walk through the parking lot in the rainy season.

"Nobody wants to come in here," she said.

In Neptune Beach, police said an Indiana tourist, 21-year-old Rachel Ann Reed, drowned after going swimming in a rough ocean churned up by the storm. To the south in Volusia County, authorities said Fatmira Krkuti, 35, of Brooklyn, N.Y., also drowned in Fay-generated waves.

Four victims died in traffic accidents on rain-slick roads, and another died of carbon monoxide poisoning while testing a generator.

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report, which contains information from the Orlando Sentinel, CNN and the Associated Press.

Fay turns northwest toward Panhandle 08/22/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 24, 2008 9:52am]

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