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Weakening Debby bound for Florida’s Big Bend

Tropical Storm Debby began weakening but the Gulf Coast and northern half of the state — already awash from nearly a foot of rain in some places — may have to endure several more days of drenching.

With more than 55,600 people without power in 42 counties, reports of widespread flooding and eroding beaches and at least one death reported from a string of tornadoes spun off by Debby, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency across the state to speed help to the hardest hit areas.

The National Hurricane Center shifted Debby’s track toward the Big Bend Area but, with the storm’s maximum sustained winds dropping to 45 mph, landfall wasn’t really the threat anymore. Debby was doing most of its damage by stubbornly hunkering offshore and streaming bands of sometimes intense storms from Fort Myers to Tallahassee.

The National Hurricane Center said Debby was about 85 miles west of Cedar Key and moving eastward near 3 mph.

The Florida Highway Patrol closed portions of Interstate 10 in north Florida early Tuesday due to flooding caused by rain. Troopers reported several areas of flooding on a roughly 50-mile stretch of the east-west interstate east of where it crosses I-75 and the agency warned motorists to use extreme caution on other parts of the highway.

South of that stretch of I-10, four puppies and a young dog drowned when a swollen creek flooded an animal shelter in the city of Starke. The Florida Times-Union reported that officials placed sandbags and dug trenches outside to protect the shelter, but the water rose quickly Sunday night.

Farther south, in the Tampa Bay area, roads such as Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard were washed out.

Forecasters predicted Debby could dump another six to 12 inches in North Florida, four to eight inches in Central Florida and three to five inches in South Florida before it creeps ashore somewhere south of Tallahassee, possibly by Wednesday.

At a news conference at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Scott urged resident to use common sense to avoid storm dangers.

“If there’s any standing water, if there’s any flooding, don’t drive into it,” he said.

Heavy rains covered much of the state, with the National Weather Service reporting more than 10 inches Sunday in Seminole, north of St. Petersburg, nearly nine inches in Apalachicola and more than 10 inches in inland Ocala.

Tornadoes also remained a concern. The National Weather Service’s Miami office reported that Debby generated 10 tornadoes over the weekend across South Florida – five in Collier County, two in Glades, two in Palm Beach and one near Golden Beach in Miami-Dade. Eight touched down on Sunday, the most in a single day since Hurricane Isbell in 1964.

The service’s Melbourne office reported that Debby had generated at least five twisters on Sunday in Hardee, Highlands, Polk and Pinellas counties. One woman was killed in Highlands when a tornado destroyed her home. High winds also temporarily closed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge between Tampa and St. Petersburg Sunday.

On the positive side, Debby was disorganized and growing weaker. Dry air was swirling into the core and wind shear shredded its rotating storm bands. It also had been stalled so long it was churning up cooler ocean waters, further sapping its power.

“You put those three together and this thing is not going to strengthen any further,’’ said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the hurricane center in West Miami-Dade.

Forecasters had struggled with predicting Debby’s track, shifting its path since Friday from Texas to Louisiana to the Panhandle to the Big Bend area. With Debby rudderless in atmospheric doldrums – stuck between another low-pressure system to the south in Gulf and the jet stream and massive high-pressure system to the north – computer models sharply disagreed on its direction. The center had more confidence in the latest tracks but there was still uncertainty over whether it would continue at its snail pace or pick up speed.

“Tropical cyclones don’t move themselves,’’ Feltgen said. “They’re steered by the weather patterns around them. It’s been in kind of a neutral zone.’’

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau Staff Writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report , which was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.