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Gabrielle puts dent in drought

Though the tropical storm drenched the county, downed trees and toppled power lines, it spared Pasco the storm surge and extensive flooding that had been expected.

By CARY DAVIS, JAMES THORNER and CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


Though the tropical storm drenched the county, downed trees and toppled power lines, it spared Pasco the storm surge and extensive flooding that had been expected.

An occasional downed tree, a few fizzing wires and bucketfuls of blessed rain helped to ease the drought afflicting Pasco County.

Friday's visitation from Tropical Storm Gabrielle apparently benefited most Pasco residents more than it bruised them.

Gabrielle doused the county with about 4 inches to 7 inches of rain before its center drifted out of range of the county late Friday, the Southwest Florida Water Management District estimated.

Faced with a rainfall deficit of about 2 feet since 1999, Friday's downpours were sweet relief, but not enough to end the drought all by itself.

"There's a ways to go yet," said Michael Molligan, spokesman for the water district.

Winds up to 50 mph battered Pasco on Friday, downing trees and toppling power lines by the dozens. Flags posted atop lamp posts in Dade City in honor of the victims of Tuesday's terrorist attacks were tossed from their perches.

But the storm surge and extensive flooding that officials had braced for late Thursday never materialized. More a common sight than roads under water were roads scattered with tree branches, leaves and dead palm fronds.

The threat of flooding remains through the weekend. The county's major rivers and creeks continue to rise and could crest above flood stages as early as Sunday, officials said.

Emergency management officials had recommended a voluntary evacuation for residents in low-lying areas prone to flooding, but only a half dozen people sought refuge in a shelter.

At 10 a.m. Friday, an elderly New Port Richey couple sat alone in a classroom at Chasco Elementary School, one of two shelters set up for evacuees.

"Why take any chances?" said Daniel Worhacz, 83, who lives with his wife in a mobile home just east of U.S. 19.

His 80-year-old wife, Dorothy, added: "I'm surprised there aren't more people here."

Richard Sliz, spokesman for Pasco's emergency management office, said it was hard to gauge whether residents took the threat of Gabrielle seriously. "Nothing really happened," he said.

For most residents, downed power lines were a minor inconvenience.

Florida Power reported that it had restored electricity to 25,000 customers throughout Pasco and Northern Pinellas. But at 5 p.m., 10,000 customers in that area were still without power. Withlacoochee River Electric said more than 4,000 of its customers -- in Moon Lake, Darby and Richland -- briefly lost power but regained service within an hour. Tampa Electric was unable to provide specific Pasco numbers, saying only that as many as 70,000 customers were without power at some point on Friday.

But for Fannie Gentles of Dade City, an ill-timed gust of wind and overburdened Tampa Electric Co. repair crews meant a day locked inside her house.

Gentles was inside her Coleman Avenue home shortly before noon when a blast of wind toppled a tree into her yard. The branches snagged her residential electric line, and everything tumbled toward her car.

But that's as far as it went. The line, stretched low and yanking the utility pole across the street to a precarious angle, didn't quite break.

That left Dade City firefighters unsure of their next move: Gentles still had electricity and wasn't in any danger, but if she stepped outside and the line snapped, she and rescue crews risked electrocution.

A TECO crew was summoned. Firefighters closed off the street. And the wait began.

At 5 p.m., Gentles was still inside, waiting. "I'm miserable. I'm not used to this," she said.

But Gentles said the day wasn't a total loss. She said she had time to watch the national prayer service on television, and she thought about how many others have suffered through so much this week.

"In Dade City, we're so blessed," she said. "This gives me time to rest and think how grateful I am."

Louise Gore of Zephyrhills also was watching the televised prayer service when a 30-year-old water oak crashed into her garden, missing her car by inches.

Staring at the wreckage in her yard, Gore summed up what many Floridians were thinking about Gabrielle: "It's the perfect ending to a very imperfect week."

-- Staff writer Jennifer Goldblatt contributed to this report.

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