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Fay slowly heads towards Gulf Coast

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida (CNN) -- Tropical Storm Fay made its fourth landfall in Florida Saturday morning, moving over the state's central Panhandle on a slow-moving westward path.

Forecasters expect the center of the storm to be over southern Louisiana by Sunday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Fay has sustained winds of 45 mph, forecasters said. They expect it to maintain its strength for the next two days while delivering heavy rainfall along a wide path.

According to the hurricane center, New Orleans, still recovering from the devastation wrought in Hurricane Katrina three years ago, could see tropical storm conditions by Sunday.

"Fay will be near or over the Gulf Coast of the western Florida Panhandle today and tonight and near or over the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama on Sunday," the hurricane center said.

At 5 a.m. ET Saturday, Fay's center was about 15 miles north-northeast of Apalachicola and 50 miles east-southeast of Panama City, Florida. The storm was moving west at near 7 mph.

"Fay is expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of 5 to 10 inches across the western portion of the northern Florida Peninsula, the Florida Panhandle, southwestern Georgia and the southern half of both Mississippi and Alabama, with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches possible," the hurricane center said.

Since Fay is expected to remain over or near warm gulf waters for the next two days, it is expected to maintain its strength through the weekend, the hurricane center said.

Longer-range forecast models suggest the storm will continue westward until Tuesday, when it is likely to turn north and east as a tropical depression.

"Regardless of its exact track, Fay will be moving rather slowly during the next several days, posing a significant heavy rainfall and flood hazard to a very large area," the hurricane center said.

Fay's torrential rainfall and powerful winds crossed southern and central Florida from the Gulf to the Atlantic this week before turning west and recrossing the state, leaving behind raging floodwaters that have caused millions of dollars in damage.

The St. Johns River overflowed its wide banks in some parts of Jacksonville Friday as Fay's winds whipped waves over the rain-soaked wooden planks at the Jacksonville Beach pier. Several roads and bridges on the Atlantic coast were closed temporarily as the slow-moving storm inched over the shoreline and set its sights on the opposite coast.

Seven deaths in Florida were blamed on the storm. The storm claimed at least 10 lives in Haiti as it passed through the Caribbean last week.

Rainfall amounts by Friday afternoon included 26.65 inches in Melbourne, 22.83 at Cape Canaveral and 20.75 at Palm Shores.

Water was still waist deep Friday in parts of Fort Pierce, Florida, more than halfway down the state's 1,200-mile Atlantic coast from Jacksonville.

Heavy rain also was reported in parched southern Georgia and southeast Alabama, the National Hurricane Center said. In St. Mary's, Georgia, across the mouth of the St. Mary's River from Fernandina Beach north of Jacksonville, Fay's winds spread fast-moving ripples over normally placid marsh waters.

Parts of U.S. 1 were underwater in northern Florida, as were several other roads in St. John's, Duval, Orange and Volusia Counties. In Flagler Beach -- where Fay came ashore Thursday after all but stalling off the coast -- authorities warned that the beach highway -- A1A -- was covered in thick sand and standing water in several spots and should be avoided.

Fay's first Florida landfall came Monday afternoon, when the storm blew over Key West. On Tuesday, Fay crossed back into Florida at Cape Romano, south of Marco Island. The storm made two earlier landfalls in Cuba.

A tropical storm warning for the Florida coast extended the northeastern Gulf Coast from Suwanee River Florida westward to the mouth of the Pearl River. A warning means storm conditions are expected within 24 hours.

A tropical storm watch, which anticipates storm conditions within 36 hours, was in effect from the mouth of the Pearl River to Grand Isle, Louisiana, including metropolitan New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, the hurricane center said.

"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," Gov. Charlie Crist told a news conference Friday morning.

A state spokeswoman said Friday that Florida has requested a national emergency grant of $20 million from the U.S. Department of Labor. The money would be used for humanitarian assistance, a jobs program for tasks such as clearing debris and helping businesses to recover, she said.

President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency for Florida Thursday to free up federal aid from the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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