RUSKIN — On Sunday morning, residents of the Tampa Bay area woke up to a National Hurricane Center forecast showing Tropical Storm Debby heading west into Texas. By later in the day, that forecast had changed, although by that time it was of little surprise to anyone in the bay area. Heavy rain and strong wind gusts lashed the metro area throughout the day, bringing flooding, power outages and a somewhat rare closing of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Although the eye of Debby remained well offshore, the Tampa Bay area took the brunt of the storm’s fury.
Locally, Tampa Electric reported sporadic power outages, pointing primarily to the Sun City area. As of Monday, approximately 200 customers were still without power in Sun City, Ruskin and Wimauma. Also on Monday, more than 2,700 customers in Sun City Center briefly lost power.
According to preliminary data from the National Weather Service office in Ruskin, the area received 7.11 inches of rain on Sunday, beating a record of 5.29 inches set in 1995. Sunday alone accounted for nearly a quarter of all rain received thus far in 2012. Additionally, wind gusts as high as 45 miles per hour were reported. Some South Hillsborough streets flooded, and a flood warning was issued for the Little Manatee River until Thursday. With the slow movement of the storm, flooding was of major concern along the Little Manatee River, with a forecasted crest six feet above flood stage.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge was closed at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and remained closed on Monday. The Florida Highway Patrol reported a wind gust of 58 miles per hour and there was persistent flooding on I-275 in the area of the Pinellas Bayway. In Tampa, Davis Island was largely cut off as the bridge was closed due to flooding and the FHP issued a weather warning for the Howard Frankland Bridge and the northbound lanes were closed on Monday evening. A stretch of Bayshore Blvd. was closed near downtown Tampa as waves and storm surge, coupled with the high tide, flooded the area on Sunday.
In Highlands County, one woman was killed and a child was injured during a tornado. The woman is credited with saving the life of the child. At least one tornado was also reported in Pinellas County, along with reports of waterspouts just offshore.
Forecasting the storm proved a challenge for the normally accurate National Hurricane Center in Miami. By Monday, Debby weakened and became less organized, and the storm was predicted to remain relatively stationary in the Gulf of Mexico before slowly moving eastward into the Big Bend area north of Tampa Bay by Wednesday evening or Thursday. The storm, however, picked up speed and made landfall near Cedar Key on Tuesday. The Tampa Bay area was under a tropical storm warning on Monday.
Debby was the earliest fourth-named storm since record keeping began, beating out Dennis, a major hurricane that formed on July 5, 2005. That year was the most active hurricane season on record with storms that also included Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma. The 2005 season had a total of 28 named storms, 15 hurricanes and 7 major hurricanes. Currently, no one is predicting this season to be a repeat of 2005. Hurricane researchers, including Drs. William Gray and Phil Klotzbach from Colorado State University, however, increased their 2012 season forecast on June 1 to consist of 13 tropical storms, with 5 hurricanes that could include 2 major hurricanes.