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Debby brings downpours to Florida's Big Bend

Story highlights

  • Debby stalls off Florida Panhandle, forecasters say
  • Tornado victim died sheltering her child, sheriff says
  • Florida's governor declares a state of emergency
  • "It's unnerving because you can't do anything," stranded woman says

An erratic Tropical Storm Debby stalled just off the Florida Panhandle on Monday evening, dumping sheets of rain on Florida's Big Bend marshes and towns far down the peninsula.

Debby was already bringing up to 5 inches of rain per hour on parts of the Panhandle, and the National Hurricane Center said northern Florida could see another 6 to 12 inches in the next two days. Forecasters declared a flash flood emergency for parts of Franklin, Liberty and Wakulla counties near Tallahassee until late Monday, and Debby drove rising tides across neighborhood streets as far south as the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

At 8 p.m. ET, Debby was centered 30 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola and was not moving. It had top winds of 45 mph. Tropical storm-force winds of 39-plus mph extended more than 230 miles from the center. Tropical storm warnings were posted from the Panhandle resort of Destin to Englewood, about 50 miles south of Tampa.

Debby already has been blamed for one death in Venus, Florida, about 100 miles southeast of Tampa, when a woman died while trying to shelter her 3-year-old daughter during a tornado. That Sunday afternoon twister flung 32-year-old Heather Town about 200 feet into the surrounding woods when it hit her home, the Highlands County Sheriff's Office said Monday.

Neighbors found her still cradling her 3-year-old daughter, who was being treated at a Tampa hospital,

"She never let go of her little one even in death," Highland County Sheriff Susan Benton said in a statement issued Monday afternoon.

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    Another twister hit St. Pete Beach on Sunday night.

    "The winds started picking up," said Laura Miller, who took shelter in a space between her refrigerator and a kitchen pantry as it passed. "We heard the proverbial noise -- the train -- the transformer blew, the windows started busting out. It was just very chaotic, all the glass flying, the debris flying into the house. It was pretty intense."

    The Sunshine Skyway bridge, which stretches over Tampa Bay and connects Bradenton with St. Petersburg, was closed Sunday because of high winds and remained closed Monday, Pinellas County officials said. CNN iReporter Magalie Caragiorgio said Monday she has been stuck in her home in New Port Richey, near St. Petersburg, since Sunday because of flooding and hasn't been able to get to her job as a nurse.

    "It's unnerving because you can't do anything," she said. "I guess I wasn't prepared. I wasn't expecting to be flooded out like this."

    Citing the threat of heavy rainfall and potential tornadoes, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Monday "so we can coordinate the use of all state resources to make sure we can respond promptly if anything happens."

    Revised forecasts showed Debby remaining a tropical storm until it makes landfall early Thursday near Apalachee Bay, in the bend of the state where the Florida Panhandle ends. The storm is then expected to cross the state and head into the Atlantic Ocean south of Jacksonville as a tropical depression on Saturday.

    Debby has followed an uncertain path since forming over the weekend. Storm warnings once stretched as far west as Morgan City, Louisiana, before shifting eastward on Sunday afternoon and Monday. That raised concerns for crews working on 596 manned oil and gas production platforms throughout the Gulf, run by various companies.

    Shell, BP and ExxonMobil began evacuating workers from offshore rigs on Sunday, but BP and Shell had made plans to return to those platforms as Debby turned toward Florida.