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Rain drenches area; more is on the way

Hurricane-style rains turned streets into creeks and airport runways into rivers Saturday as heavy thunderstorms paralyzed parts of the Tampa Bay area.

The storms, triggered by a slow-moving weather system far north of Florida, began in the early morning to the north and west of Tampa Bay. By day's end, Tampa International Airport was flushed with 5.06 inches of rain. At 4 p.m. the National Weather Service estimated St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park had received 12 inches of rain in nine hours.

A flood watch in Hillsborough County is expected to remain in effect until 8 a.m. today, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Murkala said Saturday.

Pinellas County was taken off flood watch at 9 p.m. Saturday. A lull in the system was expected to allow roads to clear overnight, but it may all start again this morning.

"These are rain amounts that you would typically expect from a hurricane or other tropical system," said Weather Service meteorologist Ron Morales. "If it returns today, and there is a good chance of that, flooding will occur a lot quicker. We could have some real problems."

In the neighborhoods of Town 'N Country west of Tampa, problems had already arrived.

Dozens of houses north of Hillsborough Avenue were surrounded by water, and county officials were marshalling high-wheel trucks to move people who wanted to evacuate voluntarily.

"We're trying real hard to get out of our house, so if I could go please," said a woman who answered a reporter's phone call to the Scoggins' residence at 7607 W Powhattan Ave.

At the county's road maintenance unit on Sheldon Road, workers had distributed about 100 sandbags to residents by 2 p.m. and were preparing more.

Three feet of brown water stood in Town 'N Country Boulevard and surrounding streets. People abandoned their disabled cars for canoes. They fretted as the wake from passing trucks broke in wavelets over their thresholds.

Kathleen and Joseph Mansfield swept 2 inches of water from the kitchen of their brick rancher at 7717 W Powhattan, as their coffee-colored poodle, Beau, hopped excitedly about.

"We're trying to pull the carpet back to save it," Mrs. Mansfield said. In the 25 years they've lived in their house, she added, they've seen worse flooding only once _ back in 1979.

County officials attributed the deep water on Saturday to two factors: high tide, and the overburdened canal system that brings too much water from other parts of West Tampa to Town 'N Country.

"This water is coming from Egypt Lakes, from Tampa Stadium, from Armenia Avenue," said Ed Turanchik, the Hillsborough commissioner whose district includes Town 'N Country.

Turanchik, clad in deck shoes and a rain slicker, was using a county-owned Jeep Cherokee to try to block traffic from driving up Town 'N Country Boulevard. He said the county has a $15-million canal-reconstruction plan that would prevent flooding in the future. But there's no money for it yet.

The heavy weather also disrupted air traffic at Tampa International Airport, said Assistant Director of Operations, Brian Rumble.

"We suspended arrivals from around 10 a.m. to noon," he said. Pilots circled the airport and were able to land when the more severe weather dissipated. "Departures are up to the pilots," according to Rumble, who added none of them opted to take-off during those hours.

Departing flights were delayed from 30 to 90 minutes over the course of the afternoon, Rumble said. "We also caught a couple of flights diverted from St. Petersburg," he added. "I understand they had a couple of runways under water."

St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport was closed all afternoon, after the runways and taxiways were coated by a foot of rain.

Travel problems weren't confined to the skies. AAA Auto Club South dispatchers were handling about 270 calls an hour early Saturday afternoon at the club's St. Petersburg dispatch center, said coordinating dispatcher Joel Emley.

Trouble spots were in Temple Terrace and South Tampa, where rising water made some streets impassable, and in Pinellas Park, where service trucks had trouble reaching stranded motorists because of the many cars abandoned in flooded streets.

Though Saturday's rain was hurricane-style, the wind was not. Most of the storms had some lightning and thunder, but brought only moderate wind. There were no tornadoes reported in the area. And though there were several traffic accidents throughout the area, there were no reported serious injuries or deaths directly attributed to the storms.

But there were lots of irritated drivers.

Along a flood-prone section of S Dale Mabry Highway at Henderson Boulevard, Jeremy Patton and a friend were using a Ford F-150 truck to haul people out of the water near the intersection. He estimated they helped 20 people out of as much as 4 feet of water. They didn't ask anyone for money, although they were persuaded to accept $20 each.

"It was just something to do," said 20-year-old Patton, an electrician who is studying to become a police officer. "We were bored and just decided to do it, just passing time."

It didn't hurt that one woman asked Patton out.

"I kind of look like Charlie Sheen and Randy Travis combined," he said.

Back in Town 'N Country, Missy Mercado, 14, was wading through the street, trying in vain to wave cars back from the high water.

"There he goes!" she shouted, as a small Toyota pickup reached water up to its hood. Exhaust bubbled out its tail pipe, and it stalled.

Down the street, Missy's mother, Genara Rivera, was worried about water damaging her 1988 Buick Regal. There was 6 inches of water in her yard at 5602 Cresthill Drive, and it was already surrounding the Buick's wheels. Rivera started the car and moved it as high in the carport as she could.

"I just got it yesterday," she said.

Saturday's 5.06 inches of rain at Tampa International was nearly a month's worth. Average June rainfall at the airport is 5.48 inches. Before the storm system hit southwest Florida on Friday, 2.75 inches had fallen at the airport this month.

Morales said the system that caused the rain is the southern edge of a low-pressure trough which was over the Ohio Valley on Saturday afternoon. The system is pulling huge amounts of moisture from the Caribbean Sea and dumping it on west Florida.

The line of storms had been expected to stall over Sarasota or Manatee counties on Friday night, but it drifted farther north than expected.

That was good news for residents of Charlotte and DeSoto Counties to Tampa Bay's south. Low-lying parts of those counties were flooded Friday and rivers and creeks crested there early Saturday.

"Unfortunately we didn't get to see the sun today," said Assistant Charlotte County Administrator Vincent Arnone. "But it has been just light rain here today. You can imagine what it would have been if we had gotten the kind of rain you did today."

Gov. Lawton Chiles on Saturday declared a state of emergency for Charlotte and DeSoto counties.

The state was sending bottled water, water tankers, 40,000 sandbags and four-wheel drive vehicles to the counties, where floodwaters slowly were receding Saturday, said Mike Rucker, spokesman for the state's Divison of Emergency Management in Tallahassee.

_ Times correspondent J.T. Ward, photo correspondent Dan McDuffie and staff writer Cheryl Ross contributed to this story. Information from the Associated Press also was used.