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Another blow to a slow recovery

Hurricane force winds knocked out power to nearly 30,000 homes as Jeanne lashed Hernando County Sunday before it weakened to a tropical storm and headed into the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm's howling winds and heavy rain also left flooded roads and forced 1,450 residents to seek shelter in county schools. Because of the need to provide refuge to those displaced by the storm, schools will be closed today but are expected to open Tuesday.

As of Sunday evening, no deaths or serious injuries had been reported and it appeared no buildings or homes had sustained serious damage, but Jeanne had hampered efforts to locate an elderly Alzheimer's patient who was last seen in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Saturday afternoon.

He was finally located about 6 p.m. Sunday.

County emergency management officials had hoped outages would be modest because Frances had already downed the most fragile tree limbs over Labor Day weekend and lessened the risk Jeanne posed to power lines.

They were to be disappointed.

About 23,200 customers were left without power after Frances and initial reports suggested Jeanne had been even more cruel. About 21,026 Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative customers were without power Sunday night; 8,000 Progress Energy Florida customers were without power as of 3 p.m. Sunday.

Withlacoochee spokesman Ernie Holzhauer, whose company's building on State Road 50 was the scene of a near riot after Frances when residents demanded to know when power would be restored, said in a statement that he understood the public's frustration and that repair crews would get to work as quickly as possible.

"Trucks have been fueled and restocked and await deployment as soon as it is safe to do so," Holzhauer said Sunday.

County emergency management director Tom Leto said all the practice he and his colleagues had from confronting major storms over the summer had finally paid off. They were ready for Jeanne.

"The team is almost on autopilot," Leto said. "Unfortunately, our community has to suffer to get that, but practice does make you better."

Water, ice and ready to eat meals provided by the federal government and left over from Frances were stockpiled and already distributed to sites throughout the county where residents without electricity will today find a cool drink and unspoiled, though not gourmet, food.

"We will do everything we can to help with the challenge of the power outages," Leto said.

Before it was downgraded about 2 p.m., Jeanne had winds of 75 mph, and gusts of up to 80 mph, emergency management officials said.

The weakened weather system was expected to lash Hernando with tropical storm force winds late into Sunday night, but to have moved offshore by this morning. During Sunday night, a storm surge of 3 to 6 feet was predicted for coastal areas, which like mobile homes, remained subject to a mandatory evacuation order.

In Hernando County's flood-prone areas, Jeanne's heavy rains are certain to add insult to injury.

After Frances, residents along the Withlacoochee River battled rising waters that topped out at more than 3 feet above normal.

Those levels could be easily surpassed in Jeanne's aftermath, said Todd Hamill, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service's Southeast River Forecast Center near Atlanta, which has been closely monitoring rainfall levels.

"Right now, we're forecasting the river to rise to about 16{ feet, but it may easily go higher," Hamill said. "The trouble is that the river was already at moderate flood stage. There's just no place for all the new rainfall to go."

Hamill said the National Weather Service put the Withlacoochee's level at 14.2 feet Saturday morning based on readings at its gauge near Trilby. The river floods at 12 feet. With an additional 6 to 8 inches of rain from Jeanne it could take weeks, if not months, for the river's levels to return to normal.

But with the abundance of water, Jeanne left some Ridge Manor residents without water in their pipes. Officials suspected a downed tree whose roots wrapped around a main line may have disrupted supply to the area. Utility Department officials planned to begin fixing it Sunday evening. All Hernando County Utility customers east of Interstate 75 are required to boil their water until further notice.

For law enforcement personnel Sunday, the most pressing concern was the whereabouts of 72-year-old Howard Murdoch, who lives in the Brookridge mobile home community on State Road 50.

Saturday, the family of the Alzheimer's sufferer took him for a walk in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Murdoch became tired, officials said, and his family left him to rest on a bench near the Weeki Wachee River.

When they returned to fetch him, he was gone.

Air, marine and ground search units were forced to call off their effort late Saturday as night fell and the storm approached. They attempted a second search at daybreak without success.

Searchers finally located Murdoch Sunday night. It was obvious from his condition, officials said, that he had braved the hurricane alone in the wilderness.

Despite being disoriented and having suffered minor cuts on his feet and face, officials said Murdoch appeared to be fine, but was taken to Oak Hill Hospital as a precaution.

"Too bad he can't really tell you what happened," Hernando County sheriff's Capt. Mike Maurer said. "I'm sure it's a heck of a story."

Will Van Sant can be reached at (352) 754-6127 or vansantsptimes.com. Times staff writer Logan Neill contributed to this report.

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