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Utilities flip switches for thousands

The number of customers without electric service in Citrus County decreased some on Monday as crews from the county's three providers attacked major outages for the second time in a month.

Early Monday, 27,429 customers were without power, Citrus' three power companies reported. That's nearly 9,000 more than they had estimated Sunday, when the storm's tropical force winds blasted the county.

By Monday afternoon, with power workers scurrying across the county _ even blocking busy roads such as State Road 44 and U.S. 19 to string lines _ about 24,000 customers were without power.

"I think they are going well right now," said Barry Bowman, spokesman for Sumter Electric Cooperative Inc., which reduced its number of outages by nearly half Monday.

As of 5 p.m., here was the breakdown: Progress Energy reported 12,479 customers without power; Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative had 9,716 customers out; and SECO had 2,209 out.

The overall pace of recovery was somewhat surprising to some power officials, who had warned residents even before Jeanne struck that restoration could take several days or even weeks.

Power officials, however, were quick to say they could not make any predictions when work would be completed. And they warned residents that some areas, such as Floral City and Gospel Island, sustained serious damage to transmission lines.

Plus, power companies are stressed from tackling the unprecedented fallout of four hurricanes in Florida.

"Even though we have fewer customers out now," said Progress Energy spokesman Mac Harris, "we also have fewer resources because of the four storms."

But, Bowman said, they were encouraged by the lack of "devastating damage" they found, and the fewer roads obstructed by trees than when Frances socked the county with tropical storm force winds Labor Day weekend.

That storm knocked out power to about 50,000 Citrus customers. Utility officials said Frances actually may have helped keep more people on line because it swept away so many dead branches, freeing many power lines _ which can withstand winds of 85 mph on their own _ of dangerous dangling debris.

"It's been several years since we had a storm in Citrus," Bowman said, "and a lot of that old growth that hasn't been knocked down in awhile, Frances came through and a lot came down."

Additionally, Harris said, power crews that restored lines during Frances also pruned straggling branches straddling power lines while they worked.

WREC officials, however, did not paint such a rosy picture, saying Jeanne was not much milder than Frances. At the peak of Frances, 16,604 of its Citrus customers were left in the dark, spokesman Ernie Holzhauer said, while Jeanne robbed 13,000 people of power.

"Hurricane Frances battered the county for 36 hours," he said. "With Hurricane Jeanne, there were stronger winds, but for a shorter duration."

He said power crews have seen a lot of lines damaged by Frances' debris, which had been sitting on curbs awaiting pickup when Jeanne struck.

"What creates a great deal of damage," he said, "is aluminum and branches flying into the wind and into the wires."

On the bright side, Holzhauer said, finding out-of-state crews to come in and help has not been as difficult a task as some power officials, and even the governor, had predicted: WREC was aided Monday by the arrival of crews from North Carolina, and the company restored power to more than 3,000 customers by afternoon.

"It's been a bit challenging," Holzhauer said, "but it has not been as much of a problem."

Progress Energy, Citrus' largest power provider, reported 10,400 outages Monday morning but upgraded that number to 12,479 after more accurate damage assessments in the afternoon.

"The numbers are up," spokesman Mac Harris said, "but also the number of customers restored is up, too."

After Frances, Citrus County officials criticized Progress Energy for not bringing enough workers into the county, where some residents went without power for as long as a week. They also complained that the company did not follow the county's priorities for power restoration and did not help road maintenance workers clear roads obstructed by fallen trees wrapped by power lines.

But Monday, county Public Works director Ken Frink was singing the company's praises.

"It's been a big turnaround from what we experienced in the last storm," he said.

The company assigned power workers to caravan with county road maintenance crews so power lines could be cleared from downed trees they approached Monday morning.

Although Frances knocked out power to several sewer lift stations, Frink said, only one in Riverhaven lost electricity. But Progress Energy restored that station quickly.

The city of Inverness, however, had lost power to as many as eight lift stations after the storm, and the situation did not change Monday afternoon.

"We have two shifts of employees working eight to 10 hours a shift nonstop," City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said. And the city is using generators and a portable septic truck or "sucker truck" to keep all residents online.

Times staff writer Abbie VanSickle contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (352) 860-7309 or jgeorgesptimes.com.

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