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Rain-laden storms settle in

The severe storms that were expected to blanket the Tampa Bay area Sunday stayed away until after dark, when rain by the inch returned to parts of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

A series of severe thunderstorms crossed the Pinellas coast about 8 p.m., then moved inland. They carried more of the drenching rains that caused street flooding and damaged homes in Pinellas and Hillsborough on Saturday.

Pinellas Park, Clearwater and north Pinellas County received a sudden deluge of nearly an inch of rainwater Sunday night. South Tampa received more than an inch, according to the National Weather Service. But only minor street flooding was reported in the area.

The weather service said most of the rain late Sunday was falling in south Hillsborough and Manatee County, but forecasters warned that rain could continue overnight in the Tampa Bay area.

The heavy weather forced the Coast Guard to delay a rescue of stranded boaters off Cedar Key. An emergency beacon was received by the Coast Guard about 7 p.m., but helicopters could not fly to the area until two hours later. Two unidentified boaters were rescued from a life raft off the Levy County coast around 11 p.m.

"One of them was holding that emergency transmitter like it was a bar of gold," said Petty Officer Alex Malaguti. "That's what saved their life."

Even before Sunday night's repeat performance, residents had plenty of reminders from Saturday's deluge. Smelly carpets, soaked upholstery and waterlogged cars kept steam cleaners and shade-tree mechanics busy.

"I'm sure there's water in the carburetor," sighed Merv Uhl of Town 'N Country as he peeked from beneath the hood of his '85 Pontiac station wagon. "The car was working fine until we drove into (the flood). The water was about this high," he said, holding his outstretched hand level with the top of the right headlight.

Uhl's home, along with many of his neighbors', was flooded Saturday. Water filled his yard on Powhattan Avenue in the Tampa suburb.

The sun was out in many areas until Sunday afternoon, when gray skies moved inland from the gulf.

Until Sunday night, most of the area had received less than an inch of rain for the day, though parts of Citrus County caught the southern end of Sunday's storm cells. Nearly 4 inches of rain fell in Crystal River during the day.

Meteorologist Ron Morales of the National Weather Service said parts of Citrus, Levy, Alachua, Marion and other northern counties found themselves beneath the same feeder trough of tropical moisture that flooded South Florida, Charlotte and DeSoto counties and the Tampa Bay area as it slowly drifted north over four days.

At times Sunday, flood warnings and advisories were in effect for nine northern counties including Hernando, Citrus and Levy. Hernando's weather, however, was tame enough for the annual Hernando Beach shark fishing tournament to go on as scheduled.

Not so in Levy County, where heavy rain began at 8:30 a.m., said Maj. Bob McCallum of the Levy County Sheriff's Office. About 3 inches an hour fell for four hours, and many of the local streets flooded. One lane of U.S. 19 in Chiefland was closed at various times because of flooding, he said.

"Our dispatch center has been extremely busy," McCallum said.

Rain wasn't the biggest problem facing Levy, north of Citrus County, McCallum said. It was the sinkholes.

"We've had eight in the city and the county at this point. And they're pretty big," he said.

The sinkholes averaged about 6 feet wide, McCallum said. They mainly opened up along the sides of roads and in parking lots. A particularly large one, 10 feet wide and 40feet deep, appeared in the parking lot of the month-old Wal-Mart on State Road 320.

"We've had problems with sinkholes before," McCallum said. "These aren't the worst we've had."

Counties south of Tampa Bay were still contending with their own problems from the storms, which paused over Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota counties on Friday.

In Charlotte, more than 200 homes were damaged or destroyed by flooding, and officials said it may cost $1.8-million to fix washed-out roads and haul away debris.

The rainy weather is still due to a low pressure system over the interior of the country. Morales said the system is pulling in huge amounts of moisture from the Caribbean.

"It's like a vacuum, sucking the air upwards and producing the clouds and the rain," Morales said.

Morales wasn't sure where the heaviest rain would fall today, but he suspected the worst to fall well to the north of Tampa Bay.

Temperatures are expected to climb into the 90s, with humidity at 70 percent, Morales said. There is a 50 percent chance for rain.

_ Staff writer Taylor Ward contributed to this report.

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