Fay strengthens over Florida

NAPLES, FL [TRACK FAY: Latest position, forecasted path, satellite image]

The storm dumped knee-deep water in some streets, downed trees and plunged 58,000 homes and businesses into the dark. A tornado ripped through Brevard County, damaging 51 homes, nine severely. But overall, residents said it wasn't as bad they feared.

"We're still here," said Corey Knapp, resident manager of the Ivey House, a bed and breakfast in Everglades City.

Forecasters posted a hurricane watch for parts of Florida and Georgia because Fay's chances of strengthening increased as it remained well organized over land. Its top sustained winds increased during the day by 5 mph to 65 mph. A hurricane has winds of at least 74 mph.

Tropical storms and hurricanes do occasionally strengthen while over land, said Eric Blake, a specialist at the National Hurricane Center. Forecasters are not certain why it is occurring with Fay, but it moved over the flat, swampy Everglades, which has ample warm water that storms need for energy.

Blake urged people not to focus too much on whether Fay was a tropical storm or a hurricane, because either one can cause damage.

"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.

The storm also spawned several tornadoes Tuesday, including one that damaged 51 houses in a Brevard County community of manufactured homes. Two people suffered minor injuries and nine homes are uninhabitable, said Brevard County Emergency Operations Center spokesman David Waters.

Most residents said the biggest problems were heavy rain, wind, and some debris-strewn streets. In South Florida, most businesses 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.

At the 7-Eleven near the beach in Naples, assistant manager Diana Eslick was getting ready for hungry surfers looking for food before they took advantage of Fay's waves.

"So far it's going good. We have power and everything. It's just been windy and rainy," she said.

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.

Gov. Charlie Crist was visiting Key West and Naples on Tuesday to see the minor damage and thank local emergency managers for their help.

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.

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. A high pressure system was expected to stall it over Florida and Georgia this week.

After crossing the Florida Keys without causing major damage Monday, Fay lumbered ashore about 5 a.m. Tuesday at Cape Romano, just south of Naples, with sustained winds of about 60 mph. Cape Romano is the same spot where Hurricane Wilma, a Category 3 storm, made landfall in October 2005.

At 5 p.m. EDT, the center of the Atlantic hurricane season's sixth named storm was about 60 miles south-southwest of Melbourne and was moving north-northeast near 8 mph.

In the Tampa Bay area, Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties lifted evacuation orders affecting mobile home residents and others in vulnerable areas when the storm failed to reach hurricane status after making landfall. But schools and government offices remained closed.

"I think we're going to all enjoy a nice summer day," said Sally Bishop, Pinellas County's emergency management director.

Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers operated normally Monday, but airlines postponed about 140 flights Tuesday until evening hours, spokeswoman Victoria Moreland said.

As it moved though the Caribbean, Fay was blamed for at least 14 deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, including two babies who were found in a river after a bus crash.

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