Fay Chugs Across Gulf Coast

This image provided by NOAA shows Tropical Storm Fay taken Saturday Aug. 23, 2008 at 8:25 a.m. EDT. Tropical Storm Fay crossed into the Florida Panhandle on Saturday, becoming the first storm of its kind in recorded history to hit the state four different times. (AP Photo/NOAA)
AP Photo/NOAA
Fay just won't quit.

The tropical storm that set a record with four landfalls in Florida chugged west across the Gulf Coast on Saturday and cities from Pensacola to New Orleans prepared for several inches of rain.

Proving that a slow-moving tropical storm can be as deadly and damaging as a hurricane, Fay killed at least 11 people in Florida and one in Georgia, emergency officials said.

Thousands of homes and businesses were inundated with flood waters this week as the storm worked its way north from its first landfall in the Florida Keys and zigzagged across the peninsula.

Fay's center made its fourth landfall around 1 a.m. EDT Saturday about 15 miles north-northeast of Apalachicola, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Rains and strong wind gusts blitzed Tallahassee, the state capital, for more than 24 hours, knocking down trees and power lines and cutting electricity to more than 12,000 customers, city officials said.

At 8 p.m. EDT, the storm's center was about 35 miles northeast of Pensacola and moving west-northwest about 7 mph. Forecasters said Fay was weakening over land with maximum sustained winds near 40 mph but was still dumping heavy rain. The storm was expected to move over southern Alabama and Mississippi on Sunday.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for the northeastern Gulf Coast from Suwanee River, Fla., west to the Alabama-Mississippi border, and storm surge flooding of two to four feet was possible.

Fay was expected to produce total rainfall of 6 to 12 inches through Sunday from western Florida all the way to eastern Louisiana.

The U.S. Coast Guard in Mobile, Ala., closed numerous ports and waterways between Panama City in Florida and the Alabama coast to the east.

In southwest Georgia, officials said a boy drowned Saturday while playing in a drainage ditch swollen by 10 to 12 inches of rain.

In Florida, as winds picked up and skies darkened along Pensacola Beach, Alex Davis took his morning jog. The longtime beach resident said he wasn't too worried.

"I doubt we'll see any flooding out here. The wind is starting to sting a little but that's about it," he said.

But emergency officials in low-lying cities in Fay's path weren't taking any chances.

In Alabama, officials opened shelters in the coastal counties of Mobile and Baldwin. Trucks capable of rescuing people from floodwaters were also in place, said Yasamie Richardson, spokeswoman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

In the New Orleans area, which is approaching the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, forecasts called for 1 to 3 inches of rain on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. In St. Bernard Parish, site of some of the worst post-Katrina flooding, emergency officials were handing out sandbags Saturday.

City officials in Slidell, La., where forecasters predicted 3 to 5 inches of rain could fall late Sunday and through Monday, said emergency vehicles had been fueled and workers were on call.

Sandbags were also distributed in Ocean Springs, Gulfport and Biloxi on the Mississippi coast. The Air Force Reserve's 403rd Wing evacuated aircraft Saturday from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi to locations in South Florida and Texas. The 403rd includes planes known as "hurricane hunters" that officials said would be available to continue to monitor Fay.

The Gulf Islands National Seashore closed a campground area and four barrier islands to the public.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, R. David Paulison, visited the National Hurricane Center in Miami on Saturday to discuss concerns of flooding on the Gulf Coast if the storm continues to creep on its path, a FEMA spokeswoman said.

"The flooding is definitely something that we are monitoring and tracking and he was down there to see what kind of handle he could get on that," spokeswoman Mary Margaret Walker said.

The 11 people killed in Florida and one in Georgia bring the death toll from Fay to at least 35. A total of 23 died in Haiti and the Dominican Republic from flooding.

Fay's wake caused widespread flooding along Florida's east coast, especially in Jacksonville near the storm's third landfall.

The Office of Insurance Regulation reported Saturday that roughly 6,700 homeowners filed claims, although only some were because of flooding.

Gov. Charlie Crist has asked the federal government to declare the worst-hit areas major disaster areas.

Fay has been an unusual storm since it was named Aug. 15. After hitting the Keys Monday, it crossed open water again before hitting a second time near Naples on the southwest coast. It limped across the state, popped back out into the Atlantic Ocean and struck again near Flagler Beach on the central eastern coast. It was the first storm in almost 50 years to make three landfalls in the state as a tropical storm. Its fourth landfall as such was the first in recorded history.

"This is unprecedented in terms of the slow nature of this storm, the large circulation and the fact that it's impacted probably about 90 percent of the state with heavy rains and severe weather," state meteorologist Ben Nelson said.