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Debby Leaves Florida with Floods, Holes and Seven Deaths

Flooded corn field
Elena Toro
Suwannee County Extension

Tropical Storm Debby, later downgraded to a tropical depression, caused floods, destroyed homes and took the lives of seven Floridians this week, leaving a mark on most of the state. Even though Debby has made her exit from Florida, officials are just beginning to assess the damage she left behind and figure out how to recover.

Debby smacked into Florida early on Sunday after marinating in the Gulf of Mexico for a day. In the early morning, she spawned tornadoes that left a South Florida mother dead.

A steady rain continued falling in the Big Bend through Monday and Tuesday, forcing thousands of people in coastal and low-lying areas to evacuate their homes. One of the evacuees was 19-year-old Kelly McLaughlin, whose home in the town of St. Marks is in one of the hardest-hit areas, Wakulla County.

“I’ve seen cars parked on higher ground. Two of our neighbors are gone—I don’t know where they went. Me and my mom are leaving. My neighbor down the street, he’s already gone," she said.

On Monday, McLaughlin was working at a Subway restaurant and said she worried about how to get past police blockades to rescue her two dogs and a cat from her home.

In another Wakulla County town called Panacea, Susan Pafford waits tables at Coastal Restaurant, and when she finished her shift Monday night, she saw that the road back to her home had disappeared underneath a massive current of rushing water. She didn’t let that stop her from going home though.

"So we go really, really slow and keep going right through the middle of it," she said. "I drive a Ford F-150 pickup truck, thank goodness, but I was thinking of all the folks driving cars that might not make it across there.”

Pafford said her yard was soaked when she got home, but it looked like her house would be OK.

Many across the state haven’t been as lucky. In Wakulla County alone, Debby damaged 387 homes, destroying 45 of them completely. And Keith Blackmar, of the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office, says overall damage there totals $8 million. But estimates will most likely grow as waters recede.

“And we’re not done, by any stretch. We haven’t done all that much in the flooded areas of Sopchoppy because we can’t get in and see a lot of the stuff at this point," he says.

Starting Saturday, state and federal emergency management officials will begin their damage assessments to determine the possible need for FEMA dollars. State emergency spokeswoman Jessica Sims says, she’s received reports of con artists posing as investigators to try and take advantage of storm victims. She offers these tips to protect against the fake agents:

“Preliminary damage assessment team members may ask about your damages and insurance but do not require any personally identifiable information such as a Social Security number," she says.

She also says state agents will always carry state identification. The areas they’ll be investigating first are those with active flooding, including Wakulla, Pasco and Dixie Counties.

And with feet of rain saturating soil across the state, costly and potentially dangerous sinkholes are plaguing many counties. Rebecca Hellmuth, a University of Florida student, was collecting soil samples at a Suwannee County peanut farm on Wednesday when she came across a hole that was bigger than a truck.

“It was about 5 feet from the road and about 30 feet across and 15 feet deep," she said.

Debby ultimately killed seven Floridians and leaves communities across North Florida flooded. And state emergency management director Bryan Koon says his agency will continue monitoring the situation for a long time to come.

“The smaller rivers are going to be cresting over the next couple of days. Those are going to be flowing into the larger rivers, so we’re going to be having some flooding, river flooding issues for the next week or two," he says.

And it’s not just government agencies who have been pitching in with the storm recovery effort. Jayme O’Rourke, of Volunteer Florida, says about 200 volunteers have already worked 1,600 hours to help storm victims.

“They’ve been handing out meals, they’ve been setting up shelters, been helping with distributing cleanup kits, all sorts of activities," she says.

She says, for those who want to help, the most immediate relief comes from cash donations to well-established relief organizations like the American Red Cross.

And, it turns out, Debby did some helping of her own, in addition to all of the devastation she’s left behind. With more than 2 feet of rain in many regions, Debby has cured Florida of a long drought that affected the entire state just two months ago. Now, the percent of Florida that’s experiencing drought is less than one-half of 1 percent.