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Storm brings rain, outages

The wind causes scattered power outages, but schools stay open with few problems.

By JENNIFER FARRELL AND ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


The wind causes scattered power outages, but schools stay open with few problems.

Tropical Storm Gabrielle swept through Hernando County on Friday with more of a whimper than a bang.

Wind gusts recorded at the Hernando County Airport reached a high of 45 mph at 3:30 p.m., and downed trees caused scattered power outages throughout the area.

But after predictions of heavy flooding, the rainfall total at the airport by 4 p.m. had reached just 2.83 inches.

"Everything seems to be pretty normal, no major problems reported," said county spokeswoman Brenda Frazier. "It's just a day of heavy rain."

County officials had prepared for severe weather, activating the Emergency Operation Center in anticipation of a possible hurricane. By Friday afternoon, though, rains had tapered off and gusty winds had largely died down.

Withlacoochee River Electric Co-op spokesman Ernie Holzhauer said the company experienced a total of eight circuit outages as well as numerous individual power failures caused by fallen trees.

Holzhauer said no more than 3,000 customers were affected at any one time, and none of the outages lasted more than one hour and 10 minutes.

Officials at the Hernando County Airport said a Florida Power transformer failed Friday morning at 10:30 a.m., causing the airport to lose power until noon.

Barry Goldsmith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said Hernando County had seen the worst of the storm. Light winds were expected for today, as well as the area's first glimpse of sunshine in several days, he said.

Hernando County schools were open Friday, despite the fact those to the south -- in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties -- shut down for the storm. Still, nearly 5,000 of the 17,000 Hernando County students stayed home.

Springstead High had 572 students absent; Central High had 515 out. Both schools have more than 1,800 students. At Hernando High, 355 of about 1,300 students stayed home.

At most schools, absenteeism ranged from 20 to 35 percent. Normally, it's less than 10 percent. The storm took most of the blame, although the impact of the terrorist attacks could be partly to blame, said school superintendent Wendy Tellone.

Some parents complained about the decision to remain open because of the rain and wind students faced when leaving for school. Tellone said she kept schools running on the recommendation of emergency managers.

And although there was some heavy rain Friday morning, winds weren't so high as to threaten buses, she said. A few schools and district offices were plagued by phone and computer problems.

At Brooksville Elementary, a power outage caused by limbs that fell on power lines meant flashlights in the hallways and cold lunches for the students. "We told them we were in our picnic mode," said principal Sue Stoops.

Along the county's coast, roads stayed damp with only a few examples of standing water. In Weeki Wachee Gardens, rain water pooled in large circles across several roads.

"Ah, that's normal," said Barbara Terry, 47, in the living room of her home on the Weeki Wachee River. "The only time we're concerned about flooding is when water is pushed in from the gulf."

That's when storms travel north of Hernando's coast, she said. Reports initially showed the tropical storm heading north to Cedar Key, prompting Terry to pull patio furniture closer to the house away from the dock.

But updates persuaded her not to carry living room furniture to the second floor on Friday, as the storm came ashore farther south.

Instead, she watched television reports about the terrorist attack in New York as the river water lapped gently below the wall of her dock. There would be no repeat Friday of the no-name storm, when 4 feet of water rushed into her home.

The standing water out in the street, she said, is due to bad drainage.

"I don't care if it rains for 40 days," she said. "We needed it."

- Jennifer Farrell covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to farrell@sptimes.com. Staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report.

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