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Storm remains in rising rivers, missing beaches

A day after Hurricane Jeanne toppled trees and darkened homes across the Tampa Bay area, many were giving thanks for once again escaping a devastating blow like the storms that smashed into Punta Gorda and Pensacola.

But for people who live alongside the Alafia River in Hillsborough County, the danger continues today from steadily rising floodwaters.

Parents in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties today also face the challenge, again, of dealing with children staying home from school for another hurricane day.

Pinellas County officials are scrambling to restore 60-foot stretches of beach that washed away.

All the while, hundreds of thousands of Tampa Bay area residents are making do without electricity.

"This is too much," said Wayde Grooms, 51, of Valrico, who was among those nervously eyeing the

rising Alafia on Monday.

Residents close to the river strapped canoes to trees as they watched the river rise. It is expected to crest this morning at 19.5 feet, or 6.5 feet above flood stage, the National Weather Service in Ruskin said.

Grooms recently invested $10,000 to remodel his elevated trailer on Lithia-Pinecrest Road. The water came within several feet of his home after Frances, but nothing reached inside. This time, however, he was bracing for the worst.

"It's coming in faster this time," Grooms said.

Citrus and Hernando county residents also battled flooding Monday, as the rising Withlacoochee River spilled over its banks. Citrus County government responded by opening sandbag stations and shelters for those who were displaced.

Citrus County Commission chairman Josh Wooten and Sheriff Jeff Dawsy complained that the state was slow in dispatching emergency supplies of ice and water, just as it was after Frances. Most frustrating, Wooten said, were the conflicting answers the county received about delivery schedules and such.

"That's playing with people's lives, and I don't appreciate that," he said during an appearance on a local TV station.

Across the region, residents dealt with downed branches, knocked-over trees, malfunctioning traffic signals, leaky roofs, crumpled carports and battered mobile homes.

"It looks like a war zone of limbs and trees," Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland said.

"But it's amazing," said Hillsborough County Code Enforcement director Dexter Barge. "We really did not get much structural damage at all. You won't find an entire mobile home park destroyed, but you'll find a mobile home or two damaged."

While individual homeowners were trying to figure out what to do about missing shingles, Pinellas County officials were pondering their missing beaches.

At Pass-a-Grille in St. Pete Beach, the storms washed away 60-foot sections of sand and left their mark in the form of 6 and 7 foot cliffs called "scarps." The erosion has changed Pinellas County's shoreline, swallowing stretches of the county's top draw for tourists. Worse, the four storms interrupted a major beach renourishment project for St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island that was scheduled to end in August and cost about $5.8-million.

Delays and added damage from the storms could be as low as $2-million, but could raise to $5-million if Pinellas has to ask the contractor to come back, said Nicole Elko, Pinellas County's coastal coordinator.

Elko is trying to keep the contractor here to finish the renourishment project. If she can do that, the cost will be significantly lower. Otherwise, the county and Army Corps of Engineers might have to pay more than $5-million. Pass-a-Grille alone could cost about $3.5-million, Elko said.

"The biggest cost is bringing those guys out there," Elko said. "We are trying to get that contract modified. It would result in a huge cost saving."

Times staff writers Bridget Hall Grumet, Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Letitia Stein and Jim Ross contributed to this story.

St. Pete Beach residents Jackie Whitham and her daughter Lauren hold hands as they walk near the sea wall at Pass-a-Grille on Monday. High tide sent waves crashing against the wall. Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne have washed away 60-foot sections of sand and left their mark in the form of 6- to 7-foot cliffs.