STEINHATCHEE, Fla. As Tropical Storm Fay finally got on track Friday to leave Florida behind, flood-stricken homeowners got an encouraging sign: Muddy brown water lines began appearing on the sides of homes, a clue that floodwaters were receding.
The fickle storm that stuck around for five days and carved a dizzying path that included three separate landfalls dumped more than 2 feet of rain in some places. But to the relief of Floridians, it finally veered west on a path that should take it away from the state for good later this weekend.
By Friday night, the storm had crossed into the Gulf of Mexico, and it was poised for a likely fourth landfall over the Panhandle the next day.
Officials in Melbourne, one of the hardest-hit areas on the central Atlantic coast, carried boats down streets where just a day earlier 4 feet of water made roads look like rivers. Water several feet high remained in some neighborhoods, but most of the area had drained, leaving behind a half-inch layer of muck and mud.
"This is a welcome sight," said Ron Salvatore, 69, who stood in his driveway Friday morning boiling coffee on a propane grill and surveyed a dry street. Salvatore and his wife, Terry, 59, had been stuck in the house since Tuesday because water surrounded their home.
The storm's death toll rose to six in Florida and nearly 30 overall since Fay first struck in the Caribbean. Florida officials said four people died in traffic accidents in the heavy rain and two others drowned in surf kicked up by the storm. Before the storm ever blew through the state, a man testing generators as a precaution also was killed.
Tens of thousands of people from Melbourne to Jacksonville to Gainesville were still without electricity, and residents of Florida's storm-stricken Atlantic coast faced a weekend of cleanup after chest-high flooding. Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said so far nearly 4,000 flood claims from Fay had been filed.
"The damage from Fay is a reminder that a tropical storm does not have to reach a hurricane level to be dangerous and cause significant damage," said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who toured flooded communities this week.
On Friday, Crist asked the White House to elevate the disaster declaration President Bush issued Thursday to a major disaster declaration. Crist said the storm damaged 1,572 homes in Brevard County alone, dropping 25 inches of rain in Melbourne. County officials put preliminary damage estimates at $53 million.
Counties in the Panhandle including Bay, Escambia and Walton opened their emergency operations centers in preparation for the storm's expected arrival there. At 8 p.m. Friday, the center of the storm was offshore, about 45 miles south of Tallahassee. It was moving west near 8 miles per hour, with sustained winds at 45 mph. The storm was expected to keep its strength Saturday but slowly weaken Sunday.
In Steinhatchee, on the northern Gulf Coast just south of Florida's Big Bend, bartender Dana Watson said she was bracing for a possible drenching. "It's moving real slow. We're waiting. We're just waiting."
In an area that can flood badly when high tide rolls in during a bad storm, she said most people remain prepared. "We've all got our generators filled up with gas and oil and our nonperishable food," Watson said. "Everyone in this town has made their preparations."
A tropical storm warning is in effect for Florida's Gulf Coast, from Aripeka in Hernando County to Destin, though a warning from Flagler Beach on the Atlantic Coast north was canceled. A tropical storm watch is still in effect from west of Destin to the Mississippi/Alabama border.
State officials and farmers were concerned that Fay had hurt tomato, peanut and citrus crops. Damage estimates aren't yet available.
Some 400 acres of tomatoes were flooded near Immokalee in the southeastern portion of the state and St. Lucie County on the Atlantic coast suffered around $20 million in losses, mostly to cattle, citrus and nursery operations. There also were reports of grapefruits blown off trees in southeastern Florida and some areas where sugar cane was bent over in high winds.
Two tropical fish farms on the central Atlantic coast were decimated, state officials said. In Georgia, where Fay blasted the coast with heavy rains, the Department of Natural Resources said a considerable number of nests of the threatened loggerhead sea turtle were washed away by the rains.
Fay has been an unusual storm, even by Florida standards. It set sights on the state last Sunday and first made landfall in the Florida Keys on Monday. The storm then headed out over 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 coast. It was the first storm in almost 50 years to make three landfalls in the state, as most hit and exit within a day or two.