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Storms set more floods loose

(ran NS S editions of Tampa Bay & State)

The severe storms that were expected to blanket the Tampa Bay area Sunday missed by 100 miles, where they caused flooding and sinkholes in Levy County.

But residents in parts of Pinellas, Pasco, and Hillsborough counties 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.

But on Sunday around Tampa Bay, the sun was out in many areas until afternoon, when gray skies moved inland from the gulf. About 8 p.m. Sunday, another batch of severe thunderstorms crossed Pinellas County. It caused minor street flooding in Clearwater but no reported damage.

Most of the area received less than an inch of rain Sunday, though parts of Citrus County caught the southern end of Sunday's storm cells. Nearly 4 inches of rain fell in Crystal River.

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 40 feet deep, appeared in the parking lot of the month-old Wal-Mart on State Road 320.

But McCallum said the county and the city were taking it all in stride.

"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. The Division of Emergency Management declared a state of emergency in Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota counties. 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. Restaurants remained closed Sunday in Charlotte County, and residents were still advised to boil their drinking water to prevent the spread of disease from damaged water systems.

In DeSoto County, residents on private wells were advised to boil their water or drink bottled water. About 340 homes and a 400-unit mobile home park remained inaccessible because of high water levels. Most roads had reopened by Sunday.

All this 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.

The rain was coming in bands, and Saturday night it looked to forecasters as if it would stay above the Tampa Bay area through Sunday. But it missed, instead reaching the counties to the north, including Citrus. Morales said he isn't sure why the rain stayed concentrated to the north. But he did hazard a guess on today's weather.

"The heaviest rain will be focussed up over the north, similar to where it is today," he said. "There is a good chance for rain over the Tampa Bay area." He didn't expect any flooding problems like those from Saturday.

Expect it also to be hot and muggy. Temperatures are expected to climb into the 90s, with humidity at 70 percent, he said. There is a 50 percent chance for rain.

_ Staff writer Taylor Ward contributed to this report.