Friday, August 22, 2008

As if a fourth straight day of rain from Tropical Storm Fay wasn’t enough, wary residents are now dealing with quintessentially Floridian fallout: alligators, snakes and other critters driven from their swampy lairs into flooded streets, backyards and doorsteps.

National Guardsman Steve Johnson was wading through hip-deep water Wednesday night when his flashlight revealed an alligator drifting through a neighborhood of flooded mobile homes.

“I said, ‘The heck is that?’ and there was an alligator floating by,” Mr. Johnson said. “I took my flashlight and was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, a big old alligator swimming around here.’”

The erratic and stubborn storm has dumped more than 2 feet of rain along parts of Florida‘s low-lying central Atlantic coast this week. The system continued its slow, wet march Thursday by curving back from the ocean to hit the state for a third time.

Alligators live in all 67 Florida counties, and state officials say they receive more than 18,000 alligator-related complaints each year. But the floodwaters heighten the risk of an encounter with people because the creatures search for a safe place to wait out the storm.

“They are trying to find dry land, someplace to hide,” said officer Lenny Salberg of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The threat of alligators, snakes and other creatures is one more problem confronting weary residents as they clean up their waterlogged homes. At least two alligators were captured in residential neighborhoods, and several others were spotted near homes.

In Carla Viotto’s backyard in Indialantic, outside of Melbourne, snakes were swimming around in 4 inches of water.

“It looked just like a junk yard,” she said.

Flooding was especially acute along the Atlantic Coast from Port St. Lucie to Cape Canaveral, with water reaching depths of 5 feet in some neighborhoods. Gov. Charlie Crist visited the area Thursday and President Bush issued a federal disaster declaration for the affected parts of Florida to help with the storm’s costs.

Brevard County officials estimated building damage would reach $12 million, mostly from flooding, and $2.6 million in damage from beach erosion.

“This is the worst I’ve absolutely ever seen it,” said Mike White, 57, who was rescued by the National Guard as water crept up to the door of his mobile home.

Fay, which was responsible for at least 20 deaths in the Caribbean and two in Florida, is just the fourth storm in recorded history to hit the Florida peninsula with tropical storm intensity three separate times. The most recent was Hurricane Donna in 1960, according to Daniel Brown, a specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

Police said an Indiana tourist drowned after going swimming in rough waters churned up by the storm at Neptune Beach. To the south in Volusia County, authorities reported a second woman also drowned in Fay-generated waves.

Fay hovered for hours just off the Florida coast Thursday. At 5 p.m. EDT, the storm was located just west of Flagler Beach and was moving west at about 5 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. It still had maximum sustained winds of 60 mph but was forecast to gradually weaken.

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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