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Fay bedevils Florida with heavy rain for 5th day

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By BRIAN SKOLOFF

Associated Press Writer

MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) -- Tropical Storm Fay continued a slow, wet trudge across Florida for a fifth day Friday, prompting communities farther inland and on the state's Gulf coast to brace for what could be drenching rains.

The erratic storm has dumped more than two feet of rain along parts of Florida's low-lying central Atlantic coast.

It is just the fourth storm to make landfall in Florida three separate times, and the first in nearly 50 years. Before it crosses the Panhandle over the weekend, it could bring four to eight inches in some areas, forecasters said.

Isolated tornadoes were possible in parts of northeastern Florida, southeastern Georgia and southern South Carolina, the National Hurricane Center said.

In Gainesville, hurricane shelters were open while schools and government buildings were closed. But some people were unimpressed by the storm, including David Phillips, 50, who said he and his 15-year-old son had driven around looking for damage.

"I don't know why schools are closed. It's ridiculous," he said. "We saw a couple limbs down but nothing else."

Two people drowned in heavy surf Thursday as the storm came ashore in Flagler Beach, nudging Fay's total death toll to 25 after Haiti discovered three more bodies. The drownings were the first U.S. deaths directly caused by the storm.

President Bush issued a federal disaster declaration Thursday for the affected parts of Florida, as hundreds of residents fled floodwaters that drove alligators and snakes out of their habitats and into streets.

Emergency officials planned to begin surveying damage along the coast Friday as the floodwaters were expected to slowly recede. In Brevard and St. Lucie Counties, residents welcomed the sight of muddy brown water lines on homes -- signifying the receding of flood waters.

Friday morning, officials in Melbourne carried boats down streets where just a day earlier 4 feet of water made roads look like rivers. About 150 people in Brevard county were evacuated by authorities; 100 others left their homes voluntarily.

"You had people here who didn't want to leave but after a few days of being stranded, they were saying, 'OK, it's time to go,"' said Hector Rodriguez, who works for the private firm Critical Intervention Services, which was hired by property managers to assist with evacuations.

Water as high as several feet still remained in some parts of this neighborhood, but most of the area had drained, leaving behind a half-inch thick layer of muck and mud.

Ron Salvatore, 69, stood in his driveway Friday morning boiling coffee on a propane grill.

"This is a welcome sight," he said, peering at the street that's now dry in front of his home. Salvatore and his wife Terry, 59, had been stuck in the house since Tuesday

In Duval County, four key bridges spanning the St. John's River were closed through the night because of high winds. That included two downtown bridges and the eight-lane Buckman Bridge connecting Mandarin and Orange Park.

Power outages plagued the area. As of 6:15 a.m. Friday, Jacksonville Electric Authority reported 66,000 customers without power.

At 8 a.m., the storm's center was just west of Gainesville, about 60 miles northeast of Cedar Key and moving west near 6 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Its maximum sustained winds had decreased to near 45 mph from near 50 mph a few hours earlier and it was forecast to gradually weaken, while staying above the tropical storm threshold of 39 mph into Saturday.

The storm first made landfall in the Florida Keys earlier this week, then headed out over open water again before hitting a second time near Naples. It then advanced slowly across the state, popped back out into the Atlantic Ocean and struck again.

In Neptune Beach on Thursday, police said an Indiana tourist drowned after going swimming in a rough ocean churned up by the storm. To the south in Volusia County, authorities said Fatmira Krkuti, 35, of Brooklyn, N.Y., also drowned in Fay-generated waves.

Brevard County officials gave a preliminary damage estimate of $12 million in Melbourne, mostly from flooding, and $2.6 million from beach erosion.

The outer bands of Fay continued to pour sporadic rains Thursday along the 100-mile Georgia coast, with some areas reporting winds of 20 to 30 mph. The National Weather Service said southern Georgia could see some flooding from 5 to 10 inches of rain as the storm moved west through northern Florida.

A tropical storm watch was posted for the Gulf coast of Florida from the Suwannee River to Indian Pass, in case the storm emerges over water again.

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Associated Press writers Ron Word reported from Jacksonville; Lisa Orkin Emmanuel, Curt Anderson, David Fischer and Tamara Lush reported from Miami; Bill Kaczor reported from Tallahassee; Russ Bynum reported from Savannah, Ga.; and Brendan Farrington reported from St. Augustine.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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