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Storm rushes through county

Gabrielle drenches Hillsborough but causes only minor flooding, some power outages and minimal wind damage.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001

Gabrielle drenches Hillsborough but causes only minor flooding, some power outages and minimal wind damage.

TAMPA -- Mercifully, Tropical Storm Gabrielle moved briskly through Hillsborough County without causing major damage.

Heavy rains resulted in some flooding, and wind gusts that topped 50 mph caused sporadic power outages and forced the closing of the Gandy and Sunshine Skyway bridges for much of the day.

But there were no injuries, and no significant damage reported.

From 4 to 8 inches of rain fell on parts of the county by Friday afternoon, with the heaviest amounts recorded in the southern part of the county, the National Weather Service said. Minor flooding was reported along the Alafia and Little Manatee rivers. Hillsborough emergency management officials said flooding could also occur today or Sunday morning when both rivers crest.

TECO spokesman Ross Bannister said as many as 70,000 customers lost power in its service area. Power was restored by late Friday for most.

Gabrielle made landfall in Venice after meandering unpredictably in the Gulf of Mexico for a couple of days. The eye passed over southeastern Hillsborough about 11 a.m., moving northeast at a 14 mph clip. The unsteady path, and preoccupation with national events, may have left some surprised by the storm.

"Twenty-four hours ago, nobody expected this storm to be where it is now," said meteorologist Dick Fletcher, with WTSP-Ch. 10.

In south Hillsborough around Ruskin, many roads were flooded and impassable, except for vehicles with high clearance. Trees had fallen across several roads and landed on power lines on busy U.S. 41.

Ankle-deep water surrounded many homes. A watery yard persuaded teenage siblings Jennifer and Michael Lopez to take refuge on the family trampoline. With two friends, they played a game of who could stay on their feet the longest as they all bounced on the slippery surface. "It's not a bad break from school," Micheal said. "As long as the house doesn't flood."

In Clair Mel, rain pelted Don Simpson and his brother, Steve, as they pushed their Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme north on Maydell Drive. Simpson said the car stalled after going though a puddle.

"I guess it was too deep," he said. "There's a bar 100 yards up the road. That's our final destination."

Along Bayshore Boulevard, which often floods in storms, most people didn't let bad weather bother them too much.

Outside an office building at Bayshore and Bay-to-Bay Boulevard, Cindy Seilkop, 46, was watching the rain with a co-worker under an awning.

"How is it affecting the day? Look at my hair," she said, laughing.

The Red Cross activated 22 shelters at 7 a.m. Friday, but the number was reduced to six by 1 p.m. The folks at Good Samaritan Mission in Wimauma, one of the busiest, started receiving calls for help about 6:30 a.m.

Many mobile homes were being swamped. "The water was coming in fast," said youth pastor Helion Cruz.

In all, 94 people arrived at the shelter throughout the day. Children played pool and watched Barney on TV while the adults kept track of the storm and the nation's tragedies.

By virtue of the storm's landing south of Hillsborough, the county was spared much of the surge-related flooding associated with the counterclockwise spin of tropical systems.

"I think we were fortunate," said Dennis LeMonde, Hillsborough's public safety community relations coordinator.

The rain on one hand provided a welcome relief to areas suffering from drought. But Hillsborough utilities spokesman John Fischer said that despite the heavy rains, the relief would be minimal. "It's going to fill the lakes and the ponds and bring some rivers up to higher levels," he said. "But it came so quickly that most of it is going to run off."

- Times staff writers Graham Brink, Amy Herdy, David Karp, Bill Coats, Tim Grant, Christopher Goffard, Melanie Ave and Josh Zimmer contributed to this report.

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