Fay's third time's a charm

Tropical Storm Fay lumbered offshore for what was likely to be a brief stay over the Atlantic Ocean's energizing waters after flooding hundreds of homes, trapping residents and leaving much of Florida a soggy mess.

Forecasters expected the storm to complete its zig-zag course by hitting the state for a third time in a week, along with Georgia, but didn't think it would strengthen to a hurricane over the open waters.

The storm flooded hundreds of homes in Brevard and St. Lucie counties, some with up to 5 feet (1.52 meters) of water, forcing dozens of rescues. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was reviewing Gov. Charlie Crist's request for a federal emergency disaster declaration to defray rising debris and response costs.

"I want to stress that this storm is becoming a serious catastrophic flooding event," Crist said.

The storm was just offshore of the Florida coast early Thursday, but continued to dump heavy rain. At 5 a.m. EDT (0900GMT), the storm's center was located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east-southeast of Daytona Beach. The storm had moved very little but was expected to begin slowly moving toward the west-northwest later in the day.

The storm's maximum sustained winds were near 60 mph (97 kilometers). The National Hurricane Center said some strengthening was possible while the center was still over water. But the storm was expected to weaken after moving back over land.

The erratic storm first struck Monday in the Florida Keys, then veered out to sea before traversing east across the state, briefly strengthening, then stalling. For much of Wednesday, the storm barely moved, dumping rain over coastal central Florida.

If Fay strikes Florida again as expected, it would be just the fourth storm in recorded history to hit the peninsula with tropical storm intensity three separate times. The most recent was Hurricane Donna in 1960, said Daniel Brown, hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

Though no deaths have been reported in the state as a result of the storm, its effects have been significant.

Emergency crews launched airboats into submerged streets Wednesday to rescue Florida residents trapped by rising floodwaters. The Florida National Guard mobilized about a dozen guardsmen and some high-water vehicles to assist with damage assessment and help with evacuations.

In St. Lucie County alone, an estimated 150 residents were assisted in evacuating by boat or high-clearance vehicle, and water was 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 meters) in some people's homes, Erick Gill, a county spokesman, said. Meanwhile, officials in Brevard County said 118 people were in shelters Wednesday night.

By the end of Wednesday, overall numbers of displaced residents and flooded homes weren't available.

"We can't even get out of our house," said Billie Dayton of Port St. Lucie, as waters lapped at her porch. "We're just hoping that it doesn't rain anymore."

Billy Johnson, 45, and his girlfriend walked four blocks through waist-high water to reach rescue vehicles after his Melbourne apartment was flooded with knee-high water.

"Everything I had is all underwater," he said. "You can't grab your food. You can't grab your TV... Grab what you can and go."

In Florida communities north of the flooding and in southeast Georgia, storm preparations included canceling school, clearing storm drains and ditches and encouraging mobile home residents to find sturdier shelter.

Fay formed over the weekend in the Atlantic and was blamed for 20 deaths in the Caribbean before hitting Florida's southwest coast, where it first fell short of predictions it could be a Category 1 hurricane when it came ashore.

Before moving east, the storm flooded streets in Naples, downed trees and cut power to some 95,000 homes and businesses. Tornadoes spawned by the storm damaged 51 homes in Brevard County, southeast of Orlando, including nine homes that were totaled. In the Keys, officials estimated 25,000 tourists evacuated.

Fay could dump 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain in some areas of Florida and the National Weather Service said nearly 25 inches (64 centimeters) had already fallen near Melbourne, just south of Cape Canaveral on the state's central Atlantic coast.