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Taking stock of turmoil of Tropical Storm Debby

The downpour stopped Monday and the sun spun out of the clouds long enough for the people of this storm-saturated region to take stock of the turmoil.

The break from Tropical Storm Debby's big black bands revealed damage from rising waters, rushing rivers and a tornado that skipped across narrow Pass-a-Grille, shredding trees and ripping roofs from homes.

Forecasters say the erratic cyclone was nearly stalled in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday night and will likely plod east across Florida, which means more wind and rain and swelling rivers. Officials were particularly concerned with the rivers, which will continue to rise for the next few days.

High winds forced the closure of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge all day Monday and it was unclear when it would re-open. Emergency officials also closed northbound lanes on the Howard Frankland Bridge Monday evening and eastbound lanes on the Courtney Campbell Parkway, which was taking on water. A portion of the Suncoast Parkway from State Road 50 to U.S. 98 also was closed.

From Clearwater to Crystal River, Belleair Bluffs to Brandon, the primary hardship was power outages and flooding. By Monday afternoon, 96-hour rainfall totals topped 15 inches in Brooksville, 14 in Tarpon Springs, 13 in Largo. Tampa and St. Petersburg saw more than 10 inches as lowlands like Bayshore Boulevard and Shore Acres flooded.

Across the state, dozens of people went to emergency shelters Monday morning, and 36,000 customers were without power, including more than 8,000 Progress Energy customers in Pinellas and Pasco counties and 8,500 Tampa Electric customers. Full power restoration could take days.

Gov. Rick Scott declared a Level 1 state of emergency, the lowest declaration, which activates storm operations in all 67 counties. Multiple counties have issued states of emergency as well, including Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough. The storm was blamed for at least one death: a 32-year-old Highlands County mother who died from injuries from a tornado.

In Ozona on Sunday, about 40 residents of the Sherwood Forest Travel Trailer Park were evacuated by firefighters in boats, including 92-year-old Ruby Douglas.

"It was a river in here," she said. "I've never seen anything like what happened yesterday.''

In New Port Richey, a man fished in the street and girls drifted along on inflatable tubes.

In Largo, on Ulmerton Road, a few feet of water flooded trailers and led firefighters to force evacuation. The park's stray cats scurried next door onto heaps of scrap metal at a boat yard.

On Indian Shores, where 500 black skimmers had been nesting near the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, the strong waves destroyed half the colony.

In Palm Harbor, at the Caladesi RV Park, Robin and Yolanda Craft and about 10 of their neighbors spent Sunday night huddled in the park's laundry facility.

"We made the best of it," said Robin. "We shared food while we kept an eye on the water."

In east Tampa, Christine Valdez saw a catfish wash up onto her mother's porch. Valdez, 39, was more worried about the inhabitant of a nearby retention pond.

"You know, there's a gator in that pond," she said.

In hard-hit Pass-a-Grille, one sentiment was repeated between sagging fences and crumbling buildings: We were lucky.

Sandy Yuhas was in the shower when the tornado touched down near her cottage on Ninth Avenue about 8:15 p.m. Sunday.

"I was taking a shower and the living room exploded," said the 63-year-old, standing in a bathrobe on her front steps Monday morning. Three of her windows blew out. The house next door collapsed. Nobody was inside.

While Pass-a-Grille took a hammering that longtime residents said beat any weather they had seen for sheer destructiveness, no one was even hurt, St. Pete Beach fire officials said.

The tornado touched down at Second, 11th and 19th avenues around 8:30 p.m., said St. Pete Beach fire Chief Dan Graves.

About 25 people were evacuated from the Pass-a-Grille Beach Condominiums, which was damaged. More than 20 buildings had roofs partially or fully blown off. One of them was Fairhaven, a historic home built in 1917.

"I think it's totaled," said owner Kenneth Herman. The building had weathered the historic hurricane of 1921 without any damage.

On Eighth Avenue, the community's commercial strip, a stench like that of rotting fish filled the air. The solid awning in front of Bamboozle, a clothing store, had collapsed. Julia Dorman, a Realtor, sorted through the ground floor of her office. It was littered with soaked, spongy ceiling tiles. The second floor was in the same state.

Across the street, Deborah Speight exited the Sea Horse. "The whole entire restaurant is flooded," said Speight, the manager. "If this is what a storm does, just think what a hurricane could do."

Artist Evander Preston said it was the worst storm he had seen in his 50-plus years in Pass-a-Grille.

Standing outside his gallery on Eighth Avenue, he crinkled his eyes and smiled through his long white beard.

"Have you ever been through a tornado? It's wild."

Insurance adjustors wandered from house to house, handing out brochures. People ambled the streets, pointing cameras at ravaged buildings or at the gulf, all gunmetal swells and ragged whitecaps. A handful of surfers plied the waves.

Bruno Falkenstein, 64, who owns the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant, said power went out and he and his crew kicked into gear. They called in a refrigerated truck and filled it with some $80,000 worth of food. It took Falkenstein, his brother and six employees two hours.

The restaurant didn't appear to be damaged. Monday morning, a neighbor rode by on his bike.

"You all right?"

"Yeah, we're good," Falkenstein replied.

The neighbor asked about damage.

"Let me put it this way," Falkenstein said. "Material things you replace. People you can't."

Times staff writers Alli Langley, Laura Morel, Drew Harwell, Erin Sullivan, Will Hobson, Jeff Harrington, Jodie Tillman and Piper Castillo contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Taking stock of turmoil of Tropical Storm Debby 06/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 26, 2012 6:37pm]
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