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Heavy rain brings relief, headaches

The Withlacoochee River flowed slowly Monday past the Hernando County boat ramp in Nobleton, even slower than the dark, soggy clouds passing overhead.

Debby and George Blust, owners of Canoe Outpost Withlacoochee, next door to the boat ramp, welcomed the rain dripping from the clouds. They have watched the river get so dry in the past few years that it was not even a river, just pools of water. And their business dried up as well.

"People start going to other rivers where they know there's going to be water," George Blust said.

Monday's showers were the latest in the waves of tropical moisture that have drenched the state over the past few days, flooding homes, washing over roads and knocking down power lines. The heavy rain also has raised hopes for recovery from years of drought, although officials say it is too early to tell whether the deluge was enough to restore the water supply.

The storms hit Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota counties Friday, passed over the Tampa Bay area and Hernando County Saturday and swept through Citrus, Levy and other northern counties Sunday.

More stormy weather came Monday, sparking a fire, causing traffic tie-ups and toppling power lines in Hernando. Most of the weather-related problems appeared to be in the Brooksville area.

About 3:30 p.m., high winds sparked by a passing storm draped power lines across Cobb Road, just north of Brooksville. The power lines covered both lanes of traffic and forced the two-lane road to close.

About a half-hour later, lightning apparently struck a double-wide mobile home, said Brooksville Fire Chief Jim Adkins. The resulting fire, at 21312 Our Road, north of Brooksville, gutted the yellow structure. Lightning apparently ripped the bark off oak tree limbs above the home.

The home was unoccupied and is owned by Margaret Plott, who was out of town. "We heard a really big loud pop," said Paula Pacitti, 49, Plott's niece, who was living in the home until Friday and now lives a few houses away. "My aunt is going to be so upset. It's her pride."

Authorities also said the storm caused scattered automobile accidents. Tree limbs also smoldered after blowing into power lines.

There were no reports of flooding in Hernando over the weekend, despite a flood warning Sunday. High water caused minor damage to Hernando Beach and Pine Island parks, said Pat Fagan, director of community services for Hernando County.

"All we really had this weekend was some minor washout areas and erosion," he said.

In all, Times weather watchers reported 4.8 inches of rain in Brooksville, 6.44 inches in Spring Hill near the intersection of Spring Hill and Waterfall drives and 7.9 inches in Hernando Beach from Friday through Monday evening.

The weekend's rain, combined with Hurricane Allison earlier this month, guarantees at least normal rainfall for the first six months of the year.

But will it be enough to erase years of drought? It is too early to tell, said Gary Florence, director of resource data development for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud.

"What we get in the summer is really critical to determine whether we had a drought year or not," he said.

Swiftmud measured 6.3 inches of rain from Friday to Sunday and 9.9 inches since June 1 at its office south of Brooksville. Normal is about 8 inches a month for June, July, August and September. Those four months account for 60 percent of the area's annual rainfall.

The weekend's deluge may seem like a lot, but five back-to-back years of drought coupled with increased demand have put a lot of strain on the water supply, Florence said. "We've got quite a deficit."

The storms brought rainfall for the area only to normal levels, he said. Before Friday, there was a 2-inch deficit in rainfall for the year.

In the Withlacoochee basin, average June rainfall is 7.3 inches. Rainfall for the month through Sunday was 8.4 inches in the Green Swamp, the river's source.

At the Canoe Outpost, the Blusts measured 5.5 inches of rain since Friday. That may be above normal compared with to rainfall in the drought years, but "if you go back six years we're not even close," George Blust said.

It has been that long since the river reached its normal average depth of 4 to 6 feet, he said. But the rainfall has been enough to make the river deep enough for canoeing, which has brought back some of the business lost during the drought.

"That's the first question people ask: Do they have to walk? Fortunately, this year I said no," Debby Blust said.

Outside the outpost, the rain intensified. A man pulled up in a pickup and got out to check the water level at the boat ramp. He said he was looking for a place to launch his boat.

"Looks like I'm going to have to find another ramp," he said.

_ Staff writer Justin Blum contributed to this report.