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Storm-weary slammed again

Published Aug. 28, 2005

Forget about Sunday as a day of rest. Citrus County spent the day waiting anxiously as Jeanne battered homes and businesses and dumped inches of rain onto already saturated ground.

Winds whipped upwards of 50 mph by early afternoon. Water washed over roads. Now-familiar images of bending palm trees and swinging streetlights flashed onto television screens. More than 18,000 customers lost electricity _ and received no optimistic words from power companies about when service might be restored.

For the second time this month, emergency workers and residents alike tracked each twist in a major storm's path. During the Labor Day weekend, it was Frances. On Sunday, it was Jeanne.

As of 5 p.m., there were no reports of storm-related injuries. There was one home fire in the town of Hernando, but no one was hurt. As expected, there were reports of tree limbs down and other plant debris on roads and yards.

Fears of a storm surge Sunday night and early this morning prompted Sheriff Jeff Dawsy to implement a curfew from 8 p.m. Sunday until 6 a.m. today. Bars and restaurants closed Sunday night, discouraging people from venturing out into the rain and wind.

County officials and employees will be assessing damage today and deciding how to get the county back to normal as soon as possible, County Commission Chairman Josh Wooten said.

Crystal River city government, too, will be open. However, if the predicted 8-foot storm surge puts City Hall under water, that plan could change.

City Council member Susan Kirk said the council likely will hold its scheduled meeting tonight, but the decision depends on the surge of water predicted to come sometime after 11 p.m. Sunday.

Nearly all businesses closed Sunday due to the dangerous winds and rain, sheriff's Capt. Joe Eckstein said.

"It's kickin' out there," he said Sunday afternoon.

County vehicles were pulled off the road early Sunday because of the strong winds and pounding rain. Animal control and county bus service both stopped at 9 a.m., Wooten said.

Officials took emergency crews off the road about noon, once the winds held steady at more than 50 mph. Crews did respond to a couple of calls, including a young woman with a baby who decided she wanted to go to a shelter, Eckstein said.

Crystal River police remained on the roads early Sunday afternoon. The western part of the county had weaker winds, and police still could drive out to homes.

Power remained on for nearly all residents at 6 a.m., but officials wearily waited for the first outages to come. At 7 a.m., Citrus officials said the Progress Energy complex north of Crystal River already had recorded sustained winds of 27 mph and gusts up to 42 mph.

By 10 a.m., reports of scattered power outages, both in the southwest parts of the county and in Inverness, started to arrive.

Four shelters opened Saturday, and they held 1,062 residents by Sunday afternoon, many of whom were evacuated from mobile homes. There was a mandatory evacuation for residents west of U.S. 19 and for residents countywide who lived in low-lying areas or mobile homes.

People could go to the shelters at any point before or during the storm, Eckstein said. Officials anticipated many more people would flock to the shelters today because of power outages and possible water problems.

At the Forest Ridge Elementary School shelter, 127 people sat on mattresses and blankets Sunday morning, watching television, playing dominos and thumbing through newspapers as they waited for the storm to pass through the county.

Barbara Seward and Jack Finch know all about life in the shelters now. It's the third time this hurricane season they've left their Hernando mobile home for Forest Ridge. The wounds from open-heart surgery were just days old when 62-year-old Seward first left her home for the shelter.

This time around, Seward and Finch tweaked their shelter plans. They donated a coffee maker to the shelter so they and others at the shelter could have decaffeinated coffee during the storm. Makes it easier to sleep through the long nights, they said.

The couple jokingly said the shelter is their second home. "It's our weekend getaway," Finch said with a grin.

By 7:30 a.m. Sunday, more than 250 people had filed into Inverness Middle School, setting up sleeping bags and air mattresses on the school's stage, staring at televisions in the cafeteria or sitting around in the school's cramped hallways.

"Hi, everybody, I just got an update _ By 3 o'clock, we'll be experiencing hurricane force winds," principal Cindy Staten told the crowd. "Breakfast will be served in a little bit."

While many lined up for a breakfast of sliced ham, scrambled eggs and grits, John Swauger, his fiancee, Edna Wilson, and five of their children waited for the line to dwindle. They had checked into the shelter Saturday afternoon with the experiences of hurricanes Charley and Frances weighing freshly on their minds.

They had evacuated their Floral City mobile home to Kissimmee when Charley came calling in August. Then the powerful storm took a surprising turn and stole their hotel room's power, leaving the refugees with a room full of branches and a parking lot with seven crushed cars.

Frances, meanwhile, robbed the family of power for eight days, leaving them without drinking water because electricity runs the well at their mobile home.

Neither Swauger, a disabled veteran whose mobility is limited, and Wilson, who is recovering from a broken hip, wished to go through that again.

"I've never seen anything like this 47 years in Florida," Swauger said Sunday, sitting in a hallway near his air mattress, fidgeting with a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes while his other hand rested on a cane.

Nearby, his fiancee sat in a wheelchair, sitting on a flashlight so she knew where it was.


Four hurricanes have hit Florida since mid August. Here is a look from the Citrus County perspective:

Aug. 13: Hurricane Charley is expected to come through the Gulf of Mexico and hit Tampa Bay. Citrus prepares for winds in excess of 100 mph. Instead, the storm hits southwest Florida and then harms Central Florida.

Sept. 5: Hurricane Frances makes landfall on Florida's east coast, then slowly crosses the state. Citrus experiences high winds and rain, some property damage, and countless downed trees and tree limbs. Thousands are left without electricity.

Sept. 16: Early forecasts showed Hurricane Ivan might come from the Gulf of Mexico and strike near Citrus. But the storm veers significantly to the west and hits the Gulf Coast instead.

Saturday: Hurricane Jeanne hits the east coast and continues moving west toward the North Suncoast. Florida becomes the first state since Texas, 118 years ago, to be hit by four hurricanes in one year.

INVERNESS: John Swauger rests early Sunday morning at the storm shelter at Inverness Middle School. Swauger of Floral City took refuge with his fiancee, Edna Wilson, whom he met in a Brooksville hospital. "We take a negative and turn it into a positive," Swauger said, referring both to Jeanne and the way he and Wilson met.

INVERNESS: Shawn McCranie, 5, eyes a plate of grits and ham early Sunday morning at the storm shelter at Inverness Middle School. Shawn and his family stayed there as Jeanne passed. Many Citrus County residents are back in shelters again to wait out Florida's fourth major storm in less than two months.