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Storm leaves region weary, in the dark

For a while Sunday, a hurricane seemed likely to cut a path through Tampa for the first time in decades.

But in a season of close calls, Hurricane Jeanne veered north, nicking the corner of Hillsborough County as it weakened to a tropical storm Sunday afternoon.

That was little comfort to the half-million or so people left without power in the Tampa Bay area and counties to the north as hurricane-strength wind gusts downed power lines, tore tree limbs and tugged on traffic signals.

Gusts of 74 mph were reported in St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach; 75 mph in New Port Richey; and 76 mph in Plant City. It's thought to be the first time a series of hurricane-force wind gusts hit the Tampa Bay area since Hurricane Gladys struck in 1968.

The fourth hurricane to hit Florida this season moved quickly across the Tampa Bay area, leaving thousands of residents in shelters, some for the third time in six tense weeks. More than 12,000 spent the day in shelters after mandatory evacuations were issued for residents in mobile homes and, in some counties, low-lying areas.

"I think we've had enough of this," said Leona Bowman, who left her mobile home at Shady Lane Oaks to ride out the storm at Pinellas Park High School. It was her second evacuation.

Jeanne's effects will linger at least another day. One to 2 inches of rain with scattered thundershowers are forecast for today, and isolated tornadoes also are a possibility with the unsettled atmosphere, said John McMichael, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

Already 2 to 4 inches fell in Pinellas and west Hillsborough on Sunday. East Hillsborough and parts of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties received 4 to 6 inches.

While most of the area was spared the kind of flooding seen just three weeks ago after Hurricane Frances, Citrus and Hernando counties were bracing for possible flooding overnight from a predicted storm surge as Jeanne moved north.

Schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus are closed today as county officials sought time to assess damage. On Sunday:

+ In Pinellas, more than 150 traffic signals were out of service and St. Petersburg police blamed standing water for causing several car accidents when drivers skidded on wet pavement.

Almost 200 units of Scottish Towers, an apartment complex in Dunedin, were uninhabitable after the roof was damaged. A fire broke out at a warehouse in Lealman after a transformer blew.

+ In Hillsborough, the eastbound lanes of Bayshore Boulevard were closed because of flooding. Strong winds ripped a white canvas canopy off the entrance to Raytheon Aircraft Services at Tampa International Airport. Waves reached the second-floor balconies of the Ramada Inn in Apollo Beach.

+ In Pasco, almost all residents in Dade City, San Antonio and Saint Leo lost power. Evacuation orders remained in effect Sunday night for some in Citrus and Hernando counties.

With the roads a tangled mess of downed tree limbs and live wires, and the threat of a storm surge up to 6 feet, Citrus and Pasco officials enacted dusk-to-dawn curfews.

"There is the potential for people to be trapped by rising water," said Michele Baker, Pasco's director of emergency management.

Jim Mortimer, who has lived along the Alafia River for 17 years, spent the afternoon tying a canoe to a tree on river-logged River Drive in Lithia.

He lost much of his furniture during Frances' flooding and hoped to remove whatever personal belongings he could before Jeanne's flooding arrived.

"I got water inside the house last time," he said. "There's not a whole lot left to do."

Jeanne virtually shut down the Tampa Bay area Sunday.

The Sunshine Skyway and Courtney Campbell Parkway were closed. The westbound lane of the Gandy Bridge was closed after a power line fell.

Tampa International Airport and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport were closed. Both planned to reopen early this morning. Residents with flights scheduled should call their airline.

The Tampa Bay Devils Rays canceled a game against the Toronto Blue Jays, and Busch Gardens in Tampa closed. Many stores and restaurants never opened or had shortened hours.

Owners of Shaner's Land & Sea Market in St. Pete Beach vowed to stay open as long as they could before the storm surge threatened. They had planned to open at 8 a.m., but a line of people gathered there by 7:30 a.m.

Five hours later, owner Michael Shaner said the market had lost power 10 times, but the kitchen stayed open.

"We've got a full kitchen," he said. "They've got to eat, and we're here to do business."

Initial reports showed Jeanne caused minimal damage _ apparently less than when Frances plodded through the bay area over a soggy Labor Day weekend.

In northeastern Hillsborough, which saw sheets of horizontal rain at times, most of the damage was to psyches. People drove for miles to find a business open _ anything to get out of the house.

"I'm just tired of hurricanes," said Chris Walther, 28, after waiting 30 minutes for food at Taco Bell on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Nathan Pinner had planned to ride out the storm at the Life of Reilly Trailer Court on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa, but Sunday morning, he decided not to risk it. Pinner, 31, hurriedly shoved ice into a cooler as he prepared to head to a friend's sturdier house.

"All the other ones, we just barely got the outskirts of it," said Pinner, a half-eaten sandwich resting on his coffee table. "But with this one, we're not going to take any chances."

Tampa Bay residents went to bed Saturday night reassured by a forecast that showed Jeanne passing through Vero Beach, Kissimmee and Citrus County, 30 to 50 miles north of its eventual path, said Chris Sisko, meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center.

That forecast was based on the behavior of a high-pressure system hovering in the Atlantic Ocean, just off North Carolina. As the high moved farther out to sea, Jeanne was expected to move west underneath it, then curve northwest, then north, and finally northeast around the high's western edge.

During the night, however, the high-pressure system moved more slowly than expected, which delayed Jeanne's northwestly curve. Instead, the hurricane kept heading west _ right toward Hillsborough County.

At one point Sunday, the storm seemed as if it might even pass directly over downtown Tampa, but that was avoided when its northerly turn finally began.

Jeanne's 400-mile diameter system trudged across the state, passing northeast of Tampa and slicing through the North Suncoast.

Theresa Breedlove said she did not realize the storm had changed course and was caught when the rain began while she was walking to a friend's home Sunday morning.

She hid under a U.S. 19 overpass in Pinellas County expecting the shower to stop momentarily.

"I was scared," she said. "I was starting to pray and everything. I was crying and praying."

A Pinellas Park police officer rescued her and took her to a shelter, where she spent the day huddled under a towel and clutched a steaming cup of coffee.

Times staff writers Jay Cridlin, Carrie Johnson, Anne Lindberg, Jade Jackson Lloyd, William R. Levesque, Dong-Phuong Nguyen, Stephen Nohlgren, Catherine Shoichet, Letitia Stein, Will Van Sant and Abbie Vansickle contributed to this report.