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Utilities' work begins anew

A Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative line crew was nearly seven hours into their 16-hour shift Monday when they restored power to a string of homes on Clipper Court.

The small crowd, which had assembled to watch them work, enthusiastically greeted the return of lights and TV after 24 hours of going without.

"Thank you," said Alice Deso, shaking a worker's hand.

"Great job," added her husband, Richard Deso.

Not everyone had reason to celebrate. On Monday, residents of Hernando County, which has been declared eligible for federal disaster aid thanks to Hurricane Jeanne, once again were stuck waiting for the return of air conditioning, cable TV and phone service.

Many were left with undesired remnants of the storm: spoiled milk, downed tree limbs and empty gas pumps.

One day after the storm blew through the county, 16,325 Withlacoochee River Electric customers were without power as of 6 p.m. Monday. Progress Energy reported that 5,667 customers were still without electricity as of 3 p.m.

Officials for the power companies couldn't say when electricity would be back for the entire county, but they promised crews were working around the clock to get the job done. Both companies expect to know by today when they will be able to reinstate all power and how extensive the damage is relative to Frances.

Bright House officials have restored cable to more than 2,600 customers in Hernando County but are unsure how many households are still without, said spokesman Ray Graber.

Withlacoochee River Electric crews returned Saturday from helping with outages caused by Hurricane Ivan in the Panhandle, said spokesman Ernie Holzhauer. Finding available out-of-state workers has been difficult, but line crews from North Carolina have arrived to help repair local damage caused by Sunday's strong winds and rain.

"We've seen more frequent damage but it's been lighter damage," said Holzhauer of the company's initial damage assessment. "We believe we have enough people on the ground to do the job."

The duties for power crews Monday included restoring power to Eastside Elementary School. Hernando County schools reopen today.

The four-man crew working Clipper Court on Monday said they had gotten mostly warm receptions from customers. Their efforts would go a lot faster if people quit asking them when their power would return, they said.

"We get stopped by everyone," said lineman Paul Helmer. "Our biggest concern is safety. We want to do it right and be safe doing it."

Word that power companies have depleted their reserves and are stretched financially after paying their work forces overtime for four hurricanes since August led some people to speculate that the companies might increase their rates.

Progress Energy officials haven't decided whether they will raise rates to replenish the company's dried up $40.9-million storm reserve but have said that is one option.

Holzhauer said his company, which serves 69,000 customers in Hernando County, had no such plans.

"We don't believe that any of the storm costs will directly affect rates," he said.

County emergency management director Tom Leto said he felt the utility providers were doing all they could to restore electricity quickly, but that in recent years they could have done a much better job of keeping tree limbs near power lines trimmed.

Still, Leto was optimistic.

"This will give our power companies a good opportunity to clean up some of the problem areas," he said.

Leto was pleased also that the county was declared eligible for disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.

The FEMA designation will allow the county to recover overtime costs and pay for damaged infrastructure. Individuals are eligible for emergency grants for shelter aid and low-interest home repair loans to cover uninsured losses.

Businesses also may apply for loans to cover their uninsured losses.

This includes claims from the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, which is eligible for federal disaster aid, Leto said. Brooksville and the county are seeking about $4-million from Washington, D.C., for Frances.

Leto expects the figure for Jeanne to be slightly less.

Though mobile homes throughout the county suffered minor damage to awnings, county inspectors Monday found that only two _ in the Brookridge community on State Road 50 _ were completely without roofs.

Trees had also punctured the roofs of single-family homes across Hernando, officials said.

A boil-water order remains in effect today for Hernando County Utility customers east of Interstate 75, where downed trees tore up utility lines. The area's water supply is being tested for possible contamination, and it is expected the boil order will be lifted Wednesday.

Despite the headaches, county emergency officials said the community is fortunate because logistical problems had been solved earlier and recovery programs created after Frances made it easier to deal with Jeanne.

For example, while it took several days to hire a company and start curbside collection of vegetative storm debris after Frances, with Jeanne, officials had only to extend the collection program.

Officials asked residents to get storm debris to the curb as quickly as possible so that it could be removed.

In Masaryktown, where tree limbs and leaves littered many neighborhood roads, Kevin Bleich sawed through a fallen tree Monday that was lying across the front yard of a house he owns.

The lifelong county resident hadn't even had a chance to take his chainsaw to another large tree that fell in the back yard during Frances.

"It has been stressful the past few weeks," said Bleich, his skin specked with wood chips. "It seems like ever since hurricane season started, the winds haven't stopped."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or cjenkinssptimes.com. Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127 or vansantsptimes.com.

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