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Gawkers, trucks, cars tweak nerves

Dennis Leo figured it was about time to start cashing in on the sinkholes.

Ever since the ground started swallowing itself last week, television crews and curious gawkers have invaded the area, making its gaping holes the talk of the town, if not the entire Tampa Bay region.

Plus, Leo already had a big shipment of T-bone steaks to get rid of.

Which is how the Spring Hill Family Restaurant's new "Sinkhole Special" came to be.

"I gotta make something good out of it," Leo, 50, said Wednesday morning, an hour after putting up a hand-lettered sign outside the restaurant off Kass Circle he runs with his wife, Laura, 51.

And for $7.99, he added, you can't beat the deal: a 10-ounce T-bone, french fries and salad.

Leo credited his son, Teddy, a 27-year-old firefighter in the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District, with hatching the idea. The younger Leo showed up at his parents' restaurant this week with a bunch of co-workers, who had been out inspecting for damage around town.

The general consensus was that the restaurant's menu could use a sinkhole angle.

As of noon Wednesday, Leo said there had been no takers on the steak, but he was confident the special would catch on.

"It's a 10-ounce," Leo added. "Make sure you put that down."

For 64-year-old Isabella Malick, the traffic has been as terrifying as the sinkholes.

"If you want to go across the street," she said, "you really have to take your life in your hands."

Malick lives on Lake Forest Avenue with her husband, George, 64. Ever since Mariner Boulevard was closed last week and a detour routed straight past their front door, the couple have had to make some adjustments.

This week, it took the Avon lady forever to get out of their driveway, and Malick said she's had to change the path of her nightly walk.

"These people think they're on the main road yet, and they don't slow down," she said. "People come tearing down here like it's Mariner Boulevard. And it's not."

Malick said she walks 2 miles every night with a neighbor who is in her 70s. So far, the extra traffic hasn't been enough to scare them off the road, but they've taken precautions.

"We don't go our same route," Malick said. "We try to get over as far as we can."

Malick, who moved to Spring Hill 12 years ago from Baltimore, remained cheerful Wednesday, despite the recent shake-up in her normally quiet neighborhood.

"What are you going to do? We're getting used to it," she said. "Maybe we'll miss the traffic when it's gone."

Across Mariner Boulevard, on the west side of the detour, Renee and Ed Fellner have similar complaints.

Since the bottom dropped out of their neighborhood, the couple have had to keep their five boys, ages 7 months to 8 years, inside.

It's not the fear of more sinkholes that has them worried, but the commercial vehicles snaking through their sleepy community.

"It's summer and our kids can't ride their bikes outside because they've got semi-tractor trailers out there," said Mr. Fellner, 33, who works as a retail manager.

"Our kids have been in the house for days," added Mrs. Fellner, 32, a stay-at-home mom.

Nearby, 7-month-old Matthew crawled across the living room carpet, while Luke, 2, climbed up on the couch next to his mother. Twins Eric and Andrew, 8, tossed a football with their brother Michael, 6, just outside the front door as a steady stream of cars wound through their neighborhood.

The Fellners said they understood the need for the detour but suggested there might be a better route: Linden Drive, for example, which they described as better equipped than Gimlet Avenue to handle big trucks.

"Local traffic is one thing, but commercial traffic is ridiculous," said Mr. Fellner. "They're too heavy for the road and they're not obeying the stop signs . . . These roads are not made for carrying 40,000 pounds of freight."

At the center of the action on Mariner Boulevard Wednesday, Harriet and Les Varwig didn't seem to mind being parked near a crack in the road, just feet from a giant hole that experts worry might soon grow.

"We just know where the back door is," Mrs. Varwig said laughing, looking out from the window of a Salvation Army lunch truck.

As longtime volunteers, the couple have gotten used to being eyewitnesses to disaster.

Mr. Varwig, 72, just recently returned from a trip to Houston, where he helped in the aftermath of devastating floods. Mrs. Varwig, 73, knows her way around the lunch truck, where she assembles sandwiches inside a tiny air-conditioned kitchen.

On Wednesday morning, they were bracing for the noon rush.

"Most of these guys bring their lunch, but we're still putting out about 20 meals a day," said Mr. Varwig.

Topping the menu were ham and cheese sandwiches, but Mrs. Varwig said she could also handle requests for salami and bologna. They had stocked coolers with soda and Gatorade, and for dessert, there were Hostess cupcakes.

In the heat, the Varwigs expected cold water to disappear first.

"That water goes right now," said Mr. Varwig. "Last Friday, we ran out twice. We could not keep water."

Down the block, where Mariner meets Marysville Street, Larry Walbert kissed his wife, Donna, goodbye in the garage before guiding her out of their driveway, now bordered by a maze of yellow tape bearing the words "FIRE LINE DO NOT CROSS."

Standing outside as workers drilled the road surface in front of his home, Walbert, 53, kept his fingers crossed.

Already, two of his neighbors have been evacuated.

Now Walbert is worried he might be next. And suddenly, the warnings his real estate agent made last year as he prepared to buy the home were echoing louder.

A retired welder from Bethlehem, Pa., Walbert moved to Spring Hill in November with his wife, 53.

The couple had heard about sinkholes in the neighborhood, and their real estate agent even faxed them newspaper accounts from areas stricken last year.

"I said, "Hey, I can handle that,' " Walbert remembered Wednesday. "Now this. This has me unsettled. It's just too close and there's too darn many of them."

As engineers continued testing Wednesday, Walbert remained worried.

"I can handle most situations, but this one's got me on edge," he said. "I'll feel better when they open (Mariner Boulevard) up and get a little traffic in here."

_ Staff writer Jennifer Farrell covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Discuss this and other issues in our Web-based forum at www.sptimes.com/hernandoforum.

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