Storm threatens Gulf cities

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 24, 2008

APALACHICOLA, Fla. (AP) — Fay just won’t quit.

The tropical storm that set a record with four landfalls in Florida chugged west across the Gulf Coast on Saturday and cities from Pensacola to New Orleans prepared for several inches of rain.

Proving that a slow-moving tropical storm can be as deadly and damaging as a hurricane, Fay killed at least 11 people in Florida and one in Georgia, emergency officials said.

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Thousands of homes and businesses were inundated with flood waters this week as the storm worked its way north from its first landfall in the Florida Keys and zigzagged across the peninsula.

Fay’s center made its fourth landfall around noon Saturday about 15 miles north-northeast of Apalachicola, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Rains and strong wind gusts blitzed Tallahassee, the state capital, for more than 24 hours, knocking down trees and power lines and cutting electricity to more than 12,000 customers, city officials said.

At 4 p.m., the storm’s center was about 55 miles east of Pensacola and 105 miles east of Mobile, Ala., and was moving west about 7 mph. Forecasters said they expected Fay to remain a tropical storm through Saturday and weaken the longer it remained over land.

Warnings and watches west of the Alabama-Mississippi border were discontinued, but a tropical storm warning remained for the northeastern Gulf Coast from Suwanee River, Fla., west to the Alabama-Mississippi border.

In southern Georgia, Fay’s winds toppled trees and utility poles and ripped small pieces off some homes near the Florida border.

In southwest Georgia, officials said a boy drowned Saturday while playing in a drainage ditch swollen by 10 to 12 inches of rain. Another person with him was taken to a hospital.

Farther south, as winds picked up and skies darkened along Pensacola Beach, Alex Davis took his morning jog. The longtime beach resident said he wasn’t too worried.

‘‘I doubt we’ll see any flooding out here. The wind is starting to sting a little but that’s about it,’’ he said.

But emergency officials in low-lying cities in Fay’s path weren’t taking any chances.

In the New Orleans area, which is approaching the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, emergency officials were monitoring the storm and telling residents of the potential for heavy rain.

City officials in Slidell, La., where forecasters predicted 3 to 5 inches of rain could fall late Sunday and through Monday, said emergency vehicles had been fueled and workers were on call.

Forecasts called for 1 to 3 inches of rain in the New Orleans area, on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. In St. Bernard Parish, site of some of the worst post-Katrina flooding, emergency officials were handing out sandbags Saturday.

Sandbags were also distributed in Ocean Springs, Gulfport and Biloxi on the Mississippi coast. The Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing evacuated aircraft Saturday from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi to locations in South Florida and Texas. The 403rd includes planes known as ‘‘hurricane hunters’’ that officials said would be available to continue to monitor Fay.

The Gulf Islands National Seashore closed a campground area Saturday and four barrier islands to the public.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, R. David Paulison, visited the National Hurricane Center in Miami on Saturday to discuss concerns of flooding on the Gulf Coast if the storm continues to creep on its path, a FEMA spokeswoman said.

‘‘The flooding is definitely something that we are monitoring and tracking and he was down there to see what kind of handle he could get on that,’’ spokeswoman Mary Margaret Walker said.

The 11 people killed in Florida one in Georgia bring the death toll from Fay to at least 35. A total of 23 died in Haiti and the Dominican Republic from flooding.

Fay’s wake caused widespread flooding along Florida’s east coast, especially in Jacksonville near the storm’s third landfall.

The Office of Insurance Regulation reported Saturday that roughly 6,700 homeowners filed claims, although only some were because of flooding.

Gov. Charlie Crist has asked the federal government to declare the worst-hit areas major disaster areas.

Fay has been an unusual storm since it was named Aug. 15. After hitting the Keys Monday, it crossed open water again before hitting a second time near Naples on the southwest coast. It limped across the state, popped back out into the Atlantic Ocean and struck again near Flagler Beach on the central eastern coast. It was the first storm in almost 50 years to make three landfalls in the state as a tropical storm. Its fourth landfall as such was the first in recorded history.

‘‘This is unprecedented in terms of the slow nature of this storm, the large circulation and the fact that it’s impacted probably about 90 percent of the state with heavy rains and severe weather,’’ state meteorologist Ben Nelson said.