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Emergency lines abuzz as storms rattle region

Bill Bishop spent most of Monday waiting for his phone to ring. But by late afternoon, only one person had called to say lightning had interrupted water service.

"I pray for it," said Bishop, owner of Mike's Pump & Well Service in Brooksville. "The more lightning, the more money."

While Bishop was not terribly busy, authorities were scrambling Monday after thunderstorms battered Hernando County.

High winds snapped tree limbs and downed power lines. At least one lightning-related fire was reported, along with minor flooding. Several car wrecks occurred during the deluge, including one fatality on Interstate 75 in Sumter County. The Florida Highway Patrol did not release any details.

"At one time, 70 to 80 percent of the (emergency response) units in the (Spring Hill Fire) district were committed, and some other units from Northwest Fire Station were also running calls, some of which were storm-related," Spring Hill Fire Chief Michael Morgan said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Nash said the storms that dumped about 2{ inches of rain were pushed through Hernando by a cold front moving through the Panhandle. The front was expected to reach Hernando and other parts of west-central Florida today, bringing clouds and cooler weather.

Today's high is expected to be in the lower to mid-70s, with clear skies.

"It'll be nice and refreshing and allow all the water to dry off and get back to normal," Nash said.

Power had to be restored to nearly 1,300 homes in Hernando Beach and Aripeka, where lightning possibly struck a utility pole. Ernie Holzhauer of Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative said power was restored in less than an hour.

Several hundred Florida Power customers also experienced power outages. Spokeswoman Melanie Forbrick said power was expected to be restored by Monday night.

A lightning strike caused a house fire at 230 Calloway Ave. in Spring Hill, north of County Line Road. The bolt was conducted through a sprinkler system and caused $25,000 worth of damage. The fire was confined to the garage. No one was hurt.

Sheriff's dispatchers dealt with more calls than usual during the storms, including several reports of car wrecks.

In one case, a 1985 Chevrolet Blazer slid into a retention ditch filled with water at State Road 50 and Sunshine Grove Road. The driver, Steven Ellison, 16, of 10176 Elgin Blvd., Spring Hill, was not injured. No citations were issued.

In another, Joseph P. Benaquisto, 19, of 7361 Clearwater Drive, Spring Hill, was taken to Spring Hill Regional Hospital with severe injuries to his thigh, as well as possible internal and head injuries. His 1991 Mazda was totaled after he ran into the side of a Coca-Cola delivery truck that was pulling onto Mariner Boulevard from a Kash n' Karry.

Authorities tried several times to airlift Benaquisto to a nearby trauma center, but helicopters could not fly because of high winds and heavy rains.

"We tried all three helicopter services and none of them were able to fly because of the storm," Morgan said.

The truck driver, Daniel Joseph Jupin, 21, of 502 E Corlew Place, Tarpon Springs, was charged with careless driving.

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