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Three soggy strikes, and Fay may land again

MELBOURNE — Tropical Storm Fay made landfall on the Florida peninsula Thursday for the third time in a week, dumping nearly two feet of rain on the area around Cape Canaveral and forcing about 100 Brevard County residents to evacuate.

The sluggish storm, which will continue to drizzle rain on the Tampa Bay area through Saturday, then set off on a meandering course toward the Panhandle, where forecasters say it may cross back over water again and make a fourth landfall.

"This storm has been hanging around and hanging around and hanging around," complained Gov. Charlie Crist as he toured flooded areas of Brevard County.

As Crist climbed into a swamp buggy for his tour, dark brown water climbed as high as the windows of some cars. Fifty seven-year-old Mike White, rescued by the National Guard from his mobile home, said waves were lapping at his front door and still rising higher.

"This is the worst I've absolutely ever seen it," White said. State emergency officials say Florida has never before seen such a prolonged storm that produced this much flooding. By the time it's done, Fay may have rained on every inch of the state.

"This has been the ultimate storm," state meteorologist Ben Nelson said. "It's got a mind of its own." Because tropical storms are not as well-organized as hurricanes, he said, their paths are harder to predict: "The computer models … they like to see a big eye. Tropical storms … kind of zigzag around."

Fay's rain and floods bring other perils. Florida National Guardsman Steve Johnson, 45, said he was wading through hip-deep water Wednesday night with a flashlight when something big caught his eye.

"I said 'What the heck is that?' and there was an alligator floating by," Johnson said Thursday. "I took my flashlight and was like, 'You've got to be kidding me, a big old alligator swimming around here.' "

This is no Hurricane Katrina, but it's no picnic either. Fay's 60 mph winds have caused less destruction than the flooding associated with its heavy rainfall. Hundreds of homes from St. Lucie to Brevard counties have been flooded, some with up to 5 feet of water. About 100 people evacuated in Brevard County, according to state emergency management officials, while dozens more decided to stick it out and try to save their belongings.

President Bush on Thursday granted Crist's request to declare a state of emergency, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to swing into action and coordinate relief efforts — even as Fay continues to wreak havoc across the state.

As Fay heads west, as much as 5 to 10 inches of rain is expected across the central and northern Florida peninsula and the Panhandle, with isolated instances of as much as 15 inches. The National Hurricane Center notes that some parts of Florida's east coast have already received as much as 20 to 30 inches of rain from Fay.

Among the hardest hit areas has been the Lamplighter Village in Melbourne. Leonard Guida, 72, has lived there for 12 years. In all that time it had never flooded — until Fay swirled over it. He watched the water rise higher and higher, until it covered the floors of his home.

When the National Guard came to rescue the residents, Guida was at his lady friend's house next door. Holding his shorts up to keep them dry, he waded through the knee-deep water back to his place to pick up some soggy belongings.

"I never thought a tropical storm would be so devastating," he said.

The rescuers took Guida and his neighbors to city buses that changed their route to read "911 evacuations." They drove to Sherwood Elementary School, where about 50 people wound up sleeping in the cafeteria on narrow, hard benches.

On Thursday, Starbucks delivered lunch, but nobody brought any good news. Guida wonders what he'll do now. He says his Citizens Property Insurance doesn't cover flooding. And since Fay isn't classified as a hurricane, he can't claim hurricane damage.

"Where do we live? That's a hard thing to conquer," he said. "Life has put a blockade on us."

So far no one has figured out the total damage caused by Tropical Storm Fay. But a similar storm — Hurricane Irene in 1999 — flooded much of South Florida and caused $800-million in damages.

One of Gov. Crist's stops was a village of manufactured homes called Barefoot Bay, where a cluster of homes had been ripped up by a tornado. Some were missing their front porches, others entire sections of the house.

"I was asleep in bed and there was a tremendous crash," said Phil Fortman, 95, standing in his doorway with a bloody gash on his left shin.

Surrounded by a gaggle of cameras and reporters, Crist sought to reassure the shaken residents. "Give me a call if you need anything," Crist told a retired nurse from New Jersey, borrowing a reporter's pen to write his cell number on the back of a card.

Fay is just the fourth storm in recorded history to hit the Florida peninsula with tropical storm intensity three separate times. The most recent was Hurricane Donna in 1960, said Daniel Brown, hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

Times staff writers Tom Zucco and Mariana Minaya contributed to this report, which contains information from Reuters and the Associated Press.

Three soggy strikes, and Fay may land again 08/21/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2008 11:18am]
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