Tropical Storm Colin comes ashore at Florida's Big Bend as swath of state braces for rain, floods

A sloppy, wet Tropical Storm Colin whipped Florida’s west coast Tuesday morning as Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for parts of the state.

The fast-moving storm, which made landfall at the Big Bend Monday night, had already caused some flooding as it sailed northeastward along the Gulf coast. At 5 a.m. Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said the storm was located about 110 miles northeast of Jacksonville, moving at about 51 mph with sustained winds of 50 mph.

The storm picked up speedas it crossed northern Florida and southeast Georgia early Tuesday. However, they warned the storm’s departure may not signal the all clear. Much of Colin’s strongest winds and heaviest rains are located on the storm’s back half, far from its center, with tropical storm force winds extending at least 230 miles to the southeast.

Tropical storm warnings have been discontinued along Florida's Gulf Coast, but are now in effect for parts of Georgia and North Carolina.

While South Florida will dodge much of Colin’s punch, heavy rain in the tail of the storm could lash the region on into the week. The big question will be whether South Florida’s over-worked flood control system can handle more rain.

During the dry season, record rain flooded farm fields in South Miami-Dade and fouled coastal estuaries as water managers struggled to lower a brimming Lake Okeechobee and drain sprawling water conservation areas. On Monday, water in the lake was more than a foot above levels they prefer heading into the wet season. Officials with the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District said they were keeping a close watch, with the storm’s path dictating upcoming operations.

By early Monday, parts of Tampa began taking a hit from the storm’s outer bands even as it remained far offshore. The Florida Highway Patrol closed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that spans Tampa Bay between Pinellas and Manatee counties, due to high winds.

Colin also triggered school closings in its paths and postponed two high school graduations in Hillsborough County. The state evacuated about two dozen campgrounds and closed 13 state parks, including the popular Silver Springs State Park in Ocala and Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Hernando County. By Monday afternoon, two roads had already flooded at Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.

Hurricane forecasters issued a tropical storm warning for the roughly 400-mile stretch between Indian Pass and Englewood on the Gulf Coast of Florida and on the east coast from Sebastian Inlet to the Oregon Inlet in North Carolina. A warning means tropical storm conditions are occurring or could occur within the next 36 hours. The east coast could see winds by Tuesday, forecasters said, with tornadoes possible Monday night across Florida and southern Georgia.

Little change in strength is expected over the next few days. But forecasters warned Colin’s heavy rains could leave the state a mess even after it departs.

Between three and five inches of rain are forecast for northern Florida, with some areas getting up to eight inches. Using new storm surge modeling, forecasters also warned that large swaths along the west coast could see flooding with a storm surge coming so soon after the weekend’s new moon. The flooding will depend largely on tides, but could vary greatly over a short distance, forecasters said.

From Indian Pass to Tampa Bay, water could rise one to three feet above ground level if the surge hits at peak high tides. Tampa Bay south to Florida Bay could see waters rise one to two feet, forecasters said.

With 34 counties under a tropical storm warning, Scott issued emergency orders activating the Division of Emergency Management as well as the Florida National Guard. The areas covered include much of the Tampa Bay region, the Panhandle, central Florida and counties along the Atlantic coast in northeast Florida. Monday night, 59 counties remained under flood watches, Scott’s office said.

Scott also postponed a Monday meeting with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in New York to remain in Tallahassee to monitor the storm.

“I want everyone to be safe. I’ve talked to utilities and sheriff’s departments, but residents have to do their part,” Scott said at a press conference.

The storm follows a soggy winter, generated by an intense El Niño that gripped the Pacific. While that weather system helped keep hurricanes from forming last year by whipping up strong upper winds, it slammed Florida with record high rain during the annual dry season.

Water managers repeatedly dumped water from Lake Okeechobee in advance of the rainy season to protect the lake’s aging dike. But recent rain mostly undid the mass flushing: in just nine days in May, the lake rose three-quarters of a foot.

On Monday, Corps spokesman John Campbell said the storm’s path would determine whether the agency adjusts operations, which could mean upping releases. The South Florida Water Management District is also keeping a close watch and making early preparations, including ensuring pumps have adequate fuel and inspecting flood control structures.

Several counties near Lake Okeechobee including Glades, Collier and Hendry had already seen heavy rain and wind, according to the National Weather Service.

“There’s already been some severe weather moving through,” meteorologist Larry Kelly said.

Colin first powered up to a tropical depression at about 10 a.m. Sunday before becoming the season’s third tropical storm, making it the earliest No. 3 storm on record for the Atlantic basin. For trivia buffs, there’s also this, via University of Miami atmospheric scientist Brian McNoldy in his blog for the Washington Post: the last time a tropical storm hit Florida was in 2013, also on June 6, when Tropical Storm Andrea made landfall near near Apalachee Bay after following a track nearly identical to Colin.

Over the next few days, South Florida and the Keys will most likely see heavy rains and flooding, despite not being in Colin’s predicted path.

“Looking at South Florida, we’re mostly out of the way,” said John Cangialosi, a hurricane specialist with the National Weather Service in Miami-Dade. “But because most of the weather is on the east side, there’s still a risk of bands of rain and some potential for severe weather.”

Forecasters also warned that the risk of rip currents will increase, with the risk high on the Gulf Coast and moderate on Atlantic beaches.

The Associated Press and Miami Herald staff writer Emily Cochrane contributed to this report.

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