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Flash! Boom! Campers run for cover

With the rainy season starting, thunderstorms teach young campers safety, weather lessons and that it's time to get out of the pools.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000

Mandy Valeriano knows exactly what to do when he hears a rumble in the jungle that surrounds Camp Lone Oak at the McGregor Smith Scout Reservation, or when lightning splits the sky.

"Whenever I hear it or see it, I go inside," said Mandy, 15, who is visiting the camp for a week with Boy Scout Troop 534 from Hialeah. "Just in case."

Mandy has gotten plenty of practice in the precautions he learned on the first day of camp during his weeklong stay at Camp Lone Oak.

After months of drought, Central Florida's summertime rainy season appears to be taking hold. But so far, the scattered storms that have visited the region daily for the past two weeks have caused little more than temporary breaks in pool time, if providing fitting mood music for nighttime ghost stories.

And at the McGregor Smith reservation, where about 1,500 Scouts will visit for weeklong stays through the summertime to attain merit badges in areas of study, including the weather, the thunderstorms provide a backdrop for lessons in safety.

"That's part of the whole ambience of this place," said David Shorter, camp director for the South Florida chapter of the Boy Scouts of America, "to try to teach and learn from all the little things."

Camp directors around Citrus County, practiced in the afternoon rain dance, say they drill home the importance of seeking shelter from the first day of camp. Once the children are inside, the directors say, they are prepared to keep them entertained with everything from crafts to board games.

"I've been here for eight years," said Chris Emrich, head counselor for the Good Counsel Camp in Floral City, which is run by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. "You can set your watch by it. It's been a little weird this year. But it's starting to settle back to normal."

The National Weather Service predicts a 50 percent chance of afternoon showers for the area well into next week, with no break in sight.

On Thursday, the 130 campers of Good Counsel were busy doing what they normally do: swimming, learning boating safety, practicing archery. When the rains came, they simply headed to their cabins to practice skits for an upcoming talent show that will close out their two-week stay.

Across the county, in Homosassa, the 25 or so children who participate in community service programs and outdoor activities with Acts 29 Youth Services, had checkers and board games to turn to.

"Most of our programs are in the morning," said Acts 29 administrator Gary Haines. "We've been blessed with not having any thunderstorms in the morning and by the time late afternoon rolls along, we're finished."

Citrus County Parks and Recreation, which runs three day camps for children ages 6 to 12, has been similarly lucky so far this year, said Summer Youth Camp director Brian Turner.

The county runs daylong programs at Inverness Primary, Citrus Springs Middle and Rock Crusher Elementary schools, with most of the activities, from dodge ball to crafts, taking place indoors. Children do go outside for some activities, and visit county pools for two hours each week.

When they are outside, as many as five counselors supervise the roughly 30 children at each school. When a thunderstorm rolled up on children playing basketball at Inverness Primary School Thurday, the counselors got them inside.

"We blew the whistle and got them in," said Turner. "The weather hasn't messed with us much."

At McGregor Smith, Scouts congregate in an open area surrounded by trees and bordered by the Withlacoochee River. There they canoe, practice archery, ride horses and camp -- Scout stuff.

On their first night, said Shorter, they are taught to listen for two alarms. One signals lightning and tells them to get out of the pool. The other means fire and tells the young men to head to a designated flagpole.

Temporary shelters are in the main camping area along with fixed buildings, if the weather becomes rough. So far, the Boy Scouts have been out of the swimming pool three or four times. They went inside to work on crafts or pursue their badges in areas such as horsemanship, which is taught in a stable.

Mandy, the 15-year-old from Hialeah, said two years ago the camp was hit by a major storm, possibly a tornado, that sent temporary shelters tumbling and a pine tree toppling onto a tent. This year, so far, the storms have typically passed through in 20 minutes or less.

"Right now you hear it for a little while, then it goes away," he said.

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