NAPLES, Fla. Tropical Storm Fay rolled ashore in southwestern Florida on Tuesday without much fanfare but stubbornly hung around like an unwelcome house guest, maintaining its strength and threatening once again to become a hurricane.
The storm first hit the Florida Keys, veered out to sea and then traversed east across the state on a path that would curve it toward to the Florida-Georgia border. The failure of Fay to weaken meant a whole new swath of the state had to prepare for a worse storm and meant Florida could wind up getting hit three separate times.
"This storm is going to be with us for a while. That's obvious now. It looks like it could be a boomerang storm," Gov. Charlie Crist said at a news conference.
Earlier in the day, it had appeared that Fay would simply peter out and perhaps bring nothing but heavy rains to the southeastern United States. But by late Tuesday, a hurricane watch was posted for parts of north Florida and Georgia as Fay seemed to be resurrected by the flat, swampy Everglades, increasing the chances it could still end up strengthening into a hurricane. Its top sustained winds increased for several hours during the day and were 60 mph late Tuesday same as when it made landfall. A hurricane has winds of at least 74 mph.
At 9 p.m. EDT, the center of the storm was about 45 miles south-southwest of Melbourne and was moving little, although forecasters expected it to head north-northeast later at about 6 mph later in the evening.
The storm was also expected weaken some before it moves over the Atlantic Ocean, where it will likely get another dose of energy Wednesday.
Eric Blake, a specialist at the National Hurricane Center, urged people not to focus too much on whether Fay was a tropical storm or a hurricane, because either one can cause damage. Fay had fallen short of predictions that it could be a Category 1 hurricane when it came ashore in southwest Florida Tuesday morning.
"A strong tropical storm can be very significant," he said, pointing to wind damage in the state's interior and the possibility of flooding from up to 15 inches expected in parts of central Florida.
Fay formed over the weekend in the Atlantic and was blamed for 14 deaths in the Caribbean before hitting Florida.
Though it flooded streets in Naples, downed trees and plunged some 95,000 homes and businesses in the dark, most Floridians thought they had dodged a bullet. The worst of the storm's wrath appeared to be 51 homes hit by a tornado in Brevard County, southeast of Orlando. Nine of the homes were totaled, said Brevard County Emergency Operations Center spokesman David Waters.
Two injuries were reported in the Brevard County tornado, and a kitesurfer who was caught in a gust of wind Monday was critically injured when he slammed into a building in front of the beach near Fort Lauderdale. Kevin Kearney, 28, was still in critical condition Tuesday, Broward General Medical Center officials and his family said.
The storm's surprising path came after Florida officials pulled off all the stops to get ready, prompting some grousing among state residents that they had overreacted to what was expected to be a minor storm. Crist declared a state of emergency two days before the storm even arrived, schools closed well in advance of the rain and 25,000 tourists in the Florida Keys were told to pack up their beach blankets and go home.
State officials defended the preparations Tuesday, and National Guard troops and storm supplies remained in reserve if needed.
"I don't know how that can be considered alarmist when we're just really trying to tell people 'This is Florida, you got a system out there, you've got to respect it, you've got to get ready,"' said Craig Fugate, the state's emergency management director.
In South Florida, the worst problem was street flooding. Most businesses there even opted to go without any shutters or other window protection. Of those that did, some plywood carried messages aimed at major storms from the past "Pop Off Charley" and "Oh Wilma!" among them.
Farther north, farmers in drought-stricken North and South Carolina were hoping for a drenching from Fay but may have to keep their fingers crossed for a few more days. A high pressure system had the potential to stall the storm out over the Florida-Georgia border.
National Weather Service meteorologist Doug Outlaw said it was not clear whether the storm would track north to the Carolinas or veer west over Tennessee.Flooding remained a concern as Fay heads up the Florida peninsula, with rainfall amounts forecast between 5 and 15 inches. The storm could also push tides 1 to 3 feet above normal and spawn tornadoes. Counties in the storm's path called off school for Wednesday and opened shelters.
Associated Press Writer Curt Anderson and Lisa Orkin Emmanuel reported from Miami. Associated Press Writers Brian Skoloff, Kelli Kennedy and Travis Reed reported from the Keys, Christine Armario reported in Tampa, Tamara Lush reported in Punta Gorda, Bill Kaczor and Brendan Farrington reported from Tallahassee and Sarah Larimer contributed from Orlando.