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Rivers rise on already soaked state

Cherry Brown, who lives near the banks of Horse Creek, always thought her waterfront view was heaven. Then heaven moved into the living room.

As the creek inched up the driveway of her rural Arcadia home Friday, Brown was using wooden saw horses to prop all sorts of furniture.

The sofa. The TV. The computer desk.

"Our canoe," Brown said, "is parked at our front door."

With roads washed out and evacuation shelters opened, the worst of Friday's heavy rains across southwest Florida caused Horse Creek to rise more than 10 feet in less than 24 hours.

As much as 14 inches of rain fell in less than 12 hours Friday, forcing officials in three counties to close more than 30 roads. Two miles of Interstate 75 were shut down briefly after motorists no longer could navigate bumper-deep waters.

At least 50,000 residents of Port Charlotte went without water Friday after the rupture of a 36-inch pipe unable to funnel the rushing flow of so much runoff. The state later sent three tanker trucks filled with 18,900 gallons of water to Charlotte County, as well as 40,000 sandbags.

"It's been a mini-emergency, a mini-disaster," said Mike Rucker, the meteorologist at the state's Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. "It didn't get to the point where we had some really major concerns."

Still, some residents and officials described the deluge as the worst they had seen in such a short period.

"To me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime rainfall," said Catherine Furr, the emergency management officer in DeSoto County. "Several years ago, we had 20 some-odd inches over a period of days, not a period of hours."

The storms came from a system of low pressure that began to hover above Charlotte, DeSoto, Sarasota and Glades counties about 3 a.m. Friday. It was part of the same system that pummeled the southeastern side of the state in recent days.

In South Dade, a photographer videotaped a man riding on skis along a residential street as he was pulled by a pickup truck. So far this week, South Florida has received about 16 inches of rain.

"In one word, miserable," was how Don Morrison of the National Weather Service in Miami described the drenching.

The system _ a cold front that brought unseasonably lower temperatures to much of the state last week _ stalled near the Florida Straits and caused the rain. But it moved slightly north early Friday, then moved south again by late afternoon.

Only northwestern Florida, extending from north of Gainesville to Pensacola, saw sunshine Friday. Most of Tampa Bay had gray skies but no rain.

Thunderstorms forced NASA to postpone Friday's liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis and threatened to ruin today's launch attempt. But Florida's southwestern coast bore the brunt of the drenching, mainly between North Port in Sarasota County and Fort Myers.

Water reached 2 to 4 feet in most areas and 6 feet in some. The flooding was particularly intense because heavy rains merged with high tide. The rains seem to stop, incidentally, about the time of low tide.

"Unequivocally, it's been the worst, but now we're in a recovery mode," said Mike Moody, an emergency operations spokesman for Charlotte County, where the lack of drinking water was worsened by closed roads and washed-out bridges. "We're talking weeks that some of these roads are going to be shut down."

Crews began putting up some 500 lighted barricades Friday around the roads and bridges damaged by the floods. The water being trucked in by the state was expected to be distributed today _ 2 gallons per person.

At least four shelters were opened Friday, but fewer than three dozen people took refuge in them. As the rains began to subside in early evening, the numbers dwindled.

In Punta Gorda, one of the early arrivals at the shelter set up in Memorial Auditorium was Dave Wilson, 55, a homeless day laborer. He said early morning rains washed away his tent and the few belongings he had.

"I'm just trying to take care of myself," he said.

Although the storm system was expected to redevelop some and move north again today, the possibility of more rain caused less alarm than the anticipated flooding of three waterways.

Officials were watching the Myakka River, which could cause some flooding at the Myakka River State Park in eastern Sarasota County. The Peace River also was expected to crest about a foot below its flood stage of 11 feet.

Of most concern was Horse Creek in DeSoto County. Forecast to crest at 16 to 17 feet today, the creek had reached 13.9 feet early Friday evening. It floods at 12 feet.

"A lot of people have been through this many times before," said Furr, the county's emergency management officer. "They have their own evacuations they like to take."

Others simply have no choice but to leave.

When the rising waters reached his knees, Matthew King grabbed his wife, Tina, and 2-year-old daughter, Laura, so they could flee their flooded DeSoto County mobile home.

"It's terrible," King said. "We don't have flood insurance or anything."

Information from Times wires was used in this report.