STEINHATCHEE, Fla. - As Tropical Storm Fay finally got on track Friday to make its way out of Florida, flood-stricken homeowners got an encouraging sign: Muddy brown water lines began appearing on the sides of homes, a clue that floodwaters were receding.
The fickle storm that stuck around for five days and carved a dizzying path that included three separate landfalls dumped more than two feet of rain in some places. But to the relief of Floridians, it was finally expected to veer west over the Panhandle before leaving for good later this weekend.
Officials in Melbourne, one of the hardest-hit areas on the central Atlantic coast, carried boats down streets where just a day earlier 4 feet of water made roads look like rivers. Water several feet high remained in some neighborhoods, but most of the area had drained, leaving behind a half-inch layer of muck and mud.
'This is a welcome sight,' said Ron Salvatore, 69, who stood in his driveway Friday morning boiling coffee on a propane grill and surveyed a dry street. Salvatore and his wife Terry, 59, had been stuck in the house since Tuesday because water surrounded their home.
The storm's death toll rose to six in Florida and nearly 30 overall since it first struck in the Caribbean. Florida officials said four people died in traffic accidents in the heavy rain and two others drowned in surf kicked up by the storm. Before the storm ever blew through the state, a man testing generators as a precaution also was killed.
Tens of thousands of people from Melbourne to Jacksonville to Gainesville were still without electricity, and residents of Florida's storm-stricken Atlantic coast faced a weekend of cleanup after chest-high flooding. Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said there will likely be thousands of flood claims from Fay.
'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,' said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who toured flooded communities this week.
Though Fay was on track to leave, it will likely still bring some heavy rain to the state before it departs. Counties in the Panhandle - including Bay, Escambia and Walton - opened their emergency operations centers in preparation. At 2 p.m. Friday, Fay was 40 miles north-northeast of Cedar Key. The storm was moving west at 4 miles per hour, with winds at 45 mph.
In Steinhatchee, on the northern Gulf Coast just south of Florida's Big Bend, there was no wind and little rain as the center of the storm neared the town Friday afternoon. But Dana Watson, a bartender at Crabbie Dads, said she was expecting it to get much worse when the eastern edge of the storm moves through. 'It's moving real slow. We're waiting. We're just waiting.'
In an area that can flood badly when high tide rolls in during a bad storm, she said most people remain prepared. 'We've all got our generators filled up with gas and oil and our nonperishable food,' Watson said. 'Everyone in this town has made their preparations.'