SOPCHOPPY, Fla. — Debby destroyed homes and businesses, washed away roads and flooded neighborhoods in Florida before the once-large tropical storm drifted out to sea Wednesday, leaving behind a sopping mess.
At least three people were killed in the storm. More than 100 homes and businesses were flooded and officials warned that the waters may not recede until next week in some places. The storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers, though most had electricity restored by the time Debby left the state.
The tropical storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday and gradually made its way across the Florida, drenching the state for several days before it weakened to a depression. The windy, rainy weather ruined vacations for some.
In Live Oak, a small city in northern Florida between Tallahassee and Jacksonville, water was up to the roofs of some homes and cars were submerged. In other places, residents stood in several feet of water as they checked out the damage to their homes.
"The water came in so fast last night," resident Johnny Torres said. "We were lucky to get out what we could."
In Crawfordville, a small town located in the crook of Florida's elbow just south of Tallahassee, main roads were impassable.
"There's more water than anybody, no matter how old they are, has ever remembered seeing," Wakulla County Commission Chairman Alan Brock said. "It's not just people on the river, it's neighborhoods, it's places that have never been flooded."
Even though Debby lost its strength, emergency management officials said they expect the aftermath to continue causing problems with swollen lakes and rivers, along with record rainfall.
"It's not over. We've got a long way to go," said Brian Koon, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. "We'll be dealing with flooding for the next week."
Several of the state's rivers in the north reached historic levels, Koon said. The Sopchoppy River along the Panhandle reached its peak Wednesday at 36.1 feet. Before the storm, it was 8 feet.
Don Shemwell was in his summer home along the river, which dumps into the Gulf. He had not left since Sunday because the only road leading to it was under more than 1 foot of water. At one point, the water surrounded his house, but it never actually entered the home.
"I was convinced we were going to lose everything," Shemwell said. "There's a lady who has lived her for 34 years, and she's never seen anything close to this. I mean, how often does some place get 30 inches of rain in 48 hours?"
More than 200 people stayed in shelters across the state Tuesday evening, and 13 shelters remained open Wednesday.
Koon's department and FEMA will begin the formal damage assessment process on Friday. There was no immediate cost estimate for the damage.
The storm dumped about 10 inches of rain on Tampa and more than 15 inches on the small, nearby city of Brooksville. Cities in the state's north fared worse: In Wakulla County – home to Crawfordville – 26 inches of rain fell over a 72-hour period, according to the National Weather Service.
State emergency officials said Wednesday that flood warnings were in effect for several north and west-central Florida rivers and about a half-dozen counties. Parts of the Upper Suwannee and Upper Santa Fe rivers are expected to crest between Friday and Saturday, and some areas will face possible flooding into next week. About 20 state parks and tourist sites remained closed Wednesday.
Authorities on Wednesday confirmed another storm-related death near St. Petersburg.
Armando Perez, 71, was found dead in flood waters outside of his Indian Rocks Beach home, the Pinellas County sheriff's office said. Perez had a heart attack and officials said he likely couldn't get help.
Over the weekend, a woman died in a tornado in Florida after she was thrown while clutching her baby, who survived, and a South Carolina man disappeared in the rough surf off the Gulf coast of Alabama.
In the Tampa Bay area, clouds gave way to spotty sunshine Wednesday and the water that had flooded some roads began to evaporate. City workers in Tampa carted felled trees and raked debris off Bayshore Boulevard, a 4.5-mile stretch that hugs Tampa Bay. It had been largely underwater and closed for days.
The Salvation Army handed out 1,000 personal hygiene kits to residents in three counties and would bring a mobile shower unit to people displaced by the floods in the Lake City area.
Along the state's beach communities, other worries emerged.
In Manatee County, nearly 200 endangered sea turtles lost their nests, while in Pinellas County, entire colonies of nesting seabirds were wiped out.
"I've never seen anything this bad here in this area," said Barb Walker of the Clearwater Audubon Society.
Walker added that some eagle nests were also destroyed and more than a dozen baby deer were separated from their mothers during the storm – but most of the babies were reunited with their herds.
There is some hope for the sea turtle population, said Suzi Fox, the director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring.
Although she estimated that some 180 nests in the county were destroyed, she saw 11 new nests on Wednesday morning. The turtles have six weeks of nesting season left.
"It's a gorgeous day. The waves have died down, the sun is out and the beach is flat," she said. "We have 11 nests laid on our beach as of last night and we're so excited. That's very encouraging."
Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Fla., and photographer Dave Martin contributed from Live Oak.