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One dead in Highlands as T.S. Debby spurs tornadoes

Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 04:28 PM

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A tornado killed one person in Highlands County today as Tropical Storm Debby lashed the Tampa area with whipping coastal winds, high surf and a soaking rain. Roads are getting inundated and the Florida Highway Patrol has closed the Sunshine Skyway.

The main storm system won't be heading this way, though, forecasters say.

Storm tracks are difficult to predict days in advance. But as of late Sunday the latest forecast map shows the center of the storm 100 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola, and likely to meander northward for several days before making landfall.

This morning the storm's top sustained winds had increased to 60 mph, and its center was about 190 miles east-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, according to the latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center. The storm is moving northeast at 6 mph.

A major concern will be flooding from heavy rainfall, he said. A public advisory said parts of Florida and southeast Georgia could receive 5 to 10 inches of rain, with some areas getting as much as 20.

Tropical storm warnings were issued in late morning for Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

The Highlands County Sheriff's Office said that one person was killed and a child was injured when several tornadoes moved through the southern section of the county.

The fatality occurred at a home on Montana Trail in the Venus area, and a house was destroyed on Bob White Trail. There was severe property damage in the 800 block of Lake June Road, Twin Lakes Road and the 200 block of Cloverleaf Road.

The rain has triggered a flood warning for the Little Manatee River in Wimauma, the Manatee River near Myakka Head, the Myakka River at the Myakka River State Park, and the Anclote River near Elfers.

There is a coastal flood advisory for Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties until noon Monday.

The storm might affect the commute Monday, at least along Bayshore Boulevard where Tampa police on Sunday afternoon blocked traffic from South Rome Avenue to West Swann Avenue because of flooding.

The storm hit close to home for a storm chaser who had just returned from a trip out west where he did not see anything.

Brian Melland was inside with his dog in the Tangerine Mobile Home Park at 1616 21 St. S., in St. Petersburg, when a storm knocked a tree onto his home.

"I heard a crash then I heard dishes breaking," said Melland, a storm chaser. "I jumped up and went to the kitchen and saw the tree had come through the house.

"I've been in shell shock ever since."

"I went out chasing in Oklahoma and Texas. Didn't see a thing. I come home here less than a week and I had a tree come down on my house. Isn't that something?"

Emergency crews responded to isolated storm damage reports Sunday.

Residents of the Mariner's Cove Mobile Home Park on Ulmerton Road in Clearwater were evacuated Sunday afternoon because of flooding.

In the 400 block of 19th Street East in Palm Harbor, low-hanging wires forced authorities to close the road around 11 a.m. Florida Progress Energy workers were called out to fix the lines.

And a tree fell on power lines at 17th Avenue South and 21st Street South in St. Petersburg. Motorists were urged to avoid the area or use caution.

Police also ask drivers to go slow through water in neighborhoods to avoid creating a wake that can damage yards and homes.

Tampa Electric reported scattered power outages around the city, particularly just north of downtown, west of Brandon and south of Temple Terrace.

"There are more strong storms in the Gulf moving this way," said News Channel 8 meteorologist Megan Hatton. She added that the heavy showers should continue Monday, but the forecast for Tuesday depends on the movement of Debby.

Debby could reach hurricane force winds by Tuesday night, forecasters with the center said in the Sunday morning advisory.

Its fury has reached West Central Florida, though, as rain – more than two inches – fell in Tampa so far this weekend.

"We could get two more inches tomorrow," said Tom Dougherty, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "By the time it's all said and done, we could get three to five inches."

That is expected probably before Tuesday, he said. And that's over the entire region.

"Some places will have higher amounts," he said, "some, lower."

Florida is parched and remains under a long-term drought that is at least for now, a bit relieved by this steady, soaking rain. Dougherty said the precipitation is good for the water table, yards, and the levels of rivers and creeks. It also is expected to cause some minor flooding of low lying areas, he said.

As of this morning, there were no reports of property damage caused by the whipping winds and rain.

Inland, winds gusted to 25 mph, Dougherty said, but along the coast, from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, winds gusted to 35 mph, he said. That has resulted in high surf advisories along the beaches, he said.

West Central Florida is not alone when it comes to Debby's wrath.

The storm has caused some flooding and strong winds from Texas to Southwest Florida, where a tornado linked to the storm touched down Saturday, damaging some Collier County homes and felling tree limbs.

From there north, heavy squalls pounded the coastline.

A coastal flood warning was issued today for Citrus and Hernando counties and a coastal flood advisory for Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough. Strong winds may create higher-than-normal tides and cause floods in low-lying coastal areas. Beach erosion also is possible.

Forecasters said some strengthening was expected in the coming 48 hours and Debby could be near hurricane strength by Tuesday night.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency as Debby threatens to flood low-lying coastal areas in his state.

This is the first time four tropical storms have been recorded before July 1 during the Atlantic hurricane season since record keeping began in 1851 and Debby's threat has resulted in the shuttering of nine oil production platforms and one drilling rig in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Workers there were evacuated.

The suspended crude production amounts to about 2 percent of U.S production and about 0.1 percent of global production. The reduced production is not expected to impact oil prices unless the storm strengthens and forces more production platforms to close.

News Channel 8 Reporter Josh Green and The Associated Press contributed to this report. (813) 259-7760

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