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School's off, anxiety's not in Hernando

Rod Lundquist, left, and his son, Erik, fill sandbags at the Ridge Manor Community Center on State Road 50 on Monday. They wanted the bags on hand in case Fay creates any problems at their nearby home. In 2004, water from Hurricane Frances washed into their home. “People have forgotten what ’04 was like,” Rod Lundquist said. “Back then, everyone was out here.”

RON THOMPSON | Times

Rod Lundquist, left, and his son, Erik, fill sandbags at the Ridge Manor Community Center on State Road 50 on Monday. They wanted the bags on hand in case Fay creates any problems at their nearby home. In 2004, water from Hurricane Frances washed into their home. “People have forgotten what ’04 was like,” Rod Lundquist said. “Back then, everyone was out here.”

BROOKSVILLE — Bracing for a gusty sideswipe from Tropical Storm Fay, Hernando County officials closed schools today but chose to keep most government offices and services available for residents bracing for the oncoming storm.

Fay shifted a bit to the east during its lumbering push toward southwest Florida on Monday, making a direct hit with Hernando improbable and easing concerns among authorities, who had worried about a storm surge, severe flooding and damaging winds.

Forecasters expected no more than 5 inches of rain, no coastal storm surge and a moderate threat of tornado activity. Local officials made sure to note that Hernando was under neither a tropical storm watch nor a warning.

"We're likely to be on the good side of the storm, if that's possible," said Cecilia Patella, interim emergency management director for Hernando County. "But we're still monitoring the situation."

Hernando was expected to experience wind gusts of up to 50 mph throughout much of the day, according to county officials. Fearful of the threat those powerful winds could pose for school buses, Hernando officials called off classes for today.

Local officials have set aside three schools — Challenger K-8, Hernando High School and West Hernando Middle School (for special needs) — in case emergency shelters are needed. As of Monday evening, no shelters had been opened and no evacuation order had been issued.

The County Commission meeting already slated for 9 a.m. today will be held but a shortened agenda is planned. Citizen comment, commissioner time and two planned breaks were removed from the schedule in an effort to finish up the required business as soon as possible.

Hernando emergency response officials seemed confident Monday they could handle a disaster despite problems during a practice exercise in early June that exposed glitches with a computer software program designed by former emergency manager Tom Leto.

The blunders during that statewide hurricane drill prompted new County Administrator David Hamilton to shake up the emergency management office, appointing Patella as the interim director and choosing county health and human services director Jean Rags to oversee the department.

Local officials fared much better during a do-over drill later in June, with several representatives from other agencies even saying the software was easier to use than previous programs. That provided an important boost for the embattled department, Hamilton said.

"I'm absolutely confident," Hamilton said Monday. "We're working as a team, we've made the preparations and, so far, I believe we're right on track."

Meanwhile, many residents were preparing themselves for the worst but hopeful that Hernando would be spared serious damage from the storm.

"I'm not worried," said Jerry Davis, who was looking for plywood and extra batteries at the Home Depot on Commercial Way in Spring Hill. "But I don't want to get caught with my pants down."

At the Ridge Manor Community Center on the far east edge of Hernando, Rod Lundquist and his son, Erik, were loading up sandbags. Lundquist remembers the devastating hurricane season of 2004, when four hurricanes raked the state in about six weeks.

"People have forgotten what '04 was like," Lundquist said. "Back then, everyone was out here." Lundquist and his son were the only ones at the center Monday afternoon.

Hamilton, on the other hand, has little clue what to expect: This will be his first experience with a hurricane. He came to Florida in January from Goodhue County, Minn., where there were different sorts of threats.

"Emergency management, where I previously lived, meant forest fires, fire evacuations and tornadoes," Hamilton said. "This scenario is a little bit different. But it's important to remember that I'm the only new one here. We have a very experienced staff that is ready to go."

Times staffers Will Vragovic, Ron Thompson, Barbara Behrendt and Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or 754-6120.

School's off, anxiety's not in Hernando 08/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 8:16pm]

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