Tropical Storm Fay hugs Florida’s Atlantic coast

Published 3:54 pm Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tropical Storm Fay meandered north along the Florida Atlantic coast Wednesday but did not immediately head out over the ocean, lessening the chances it will gain strength and become a hurricane.

Northern Florida and much of Georgia are expecting a long drenching, which some farmers hope will boost crops hurt by a lingering drought.

In Jacksonville early Wednesday, business was brisk at grocery stores and gas stations as people prepared for Fay’s arrival. Velton Jones, manager at a discount department store, said he was selling basics such as water, flashlights, emergency supplies and cigarettes.

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“The storm’s coming, people want to have their cigarettes,” Jones said. “I expect it’s going to be chaotic in here today.”

Customer Rodney Van Buren bought diapers, ice and other things.

“We’re not scared, just being cautious,” he said. “We don’t want to wait until the last minute.”

There were no new reports of damage Wednesday and only minor street flooding in the Melbourne area, where Fay was predicted to dump between 5 and 10 inches of rain.

Cocoa resident Meghan Ellison, 22, said her 5-year-old daughter Brianna was disappointed she couldn’t start her first day of kindergarten because schools were closed.

“I woke up and was surprised the storm wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” she said.

The storm hit the Florida Keys on Monday, veered over the Gulf and then traversed east across the state Tuesday on a path that would have taken it over the Atlantic before it curved toward the Florida-Georgia border.

Forecasters had originally expected the storm to get a dose of energy when it moved over the ocean and possibly become a hurricane. But the storm’s center remained just inland early Wednesday and forecasters said it may not go over the water until the afternoon. The chances of Fay becoming a hurricane were shrinking, the National Hurricane Center said.

Still, a hurricane watch remained in effect for parts of north Florida and Georgia. A tropical storm warning was extended, covering an area from north of Jupiter Inlet to Altamaha Sound in Georgia. A warning means such conditions are expected within 24 hours, while a watch means such conditions are possible within 36 hours.

The storm was near Cape Canaveral at 8 a.m. EDT Wednesday, about 15 miles south of Cape Canaveral. Its maximum sustained winds had dropped to 45 mph from near 50 mph and it was moving north at about 5 mph.

While forecasters warned rainfall from the storm could just as easily be catastrophic as benign, farmers in drought-plagued areas were cautiously optimistic.

“It’s very seldom we’re hoping for a hurricane, but we are,” said Randy Branch, a farmer in southeast Georgia where lingering drought has left about a third of his cotton and peanut crops bare this summer.

“We need some rain pretty bad.”

National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Letro said it’s possible southern Georgia could receive 10 to 20 inches of rain — enough to cause severe flooding — if it makes a second landfall.

“I know people hate drought, but when you’re talking about a tropical cyclone relieving drought conditions, be careful what you wish for,” said Letro, the chief meteorologist in Jacksonville, Fla.

In Duval County, which surrounds Jacksonville, officials prepared shelters, cleared drainage areas that could flood and readied emergency response teams. Public schools canceled Wednesday and Thursday classes, and mobile home residents were encouraged to find sturdier shelter.

“Our biggest concern is complacency. Jacksonville has a history of being shielded from storm systems. While we don’t want anyone to panic, we want everyone in the area to take this storm seriously,” said Misty Skipper, a county spokeswoman.

In southeast Georgia, Camden County public works crews cleaned storm drains and ditches in preparation for possible flooding. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency also began 24-hour operations Tuesday afternoon to monitor the storm.

A National Hurricane Center forecast late Tuesday projected that the storm’s path would take it through Alabama over the weekend. However, projections varied widely, prompting some in South Carolina to hope for crop-sating rain.

“I just came in from the fields. Everything is burning up,” said Belton, S.C., farmer Charles Campbell. “If a storm is brewing down there, just send it up I-26.”

Fay formed over the weekend in the Atlantic and was blamed for 20 deaths in the Caribbean before hitting Florida’s southwest coast, where it fell short of predictions it could be a Category 1 hurricane when it came ashore.

The storm flooded streets in Naples, downed trees and cut power to some 95,000 homes and businesses in South Florida. The worst of the storm’s wrath appeared to be 51 homes hit by a tornado in Brevard County, southeast of Orlando, including nine homes that were totaled.

Two injuries were reported in the Brevard County tornado, and a kitesurfer who was caught in a gust of wind Monday was critically injured when he slammed into a building in front of the beach near Fort Lauderdale. Kevin Kearney, 28, was still in critical condition Tuesday, Broward General Medical Center officials and his family said.