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Wrecks, fires and a lot of debris

Exaiver McWhite has a wife and three children waiting for him at the home he hasn't seen in more than 24 hours.

But here it is Monday morning and McWhite, who works in Tampa's wastewater department, has no delusions he'll get home to them any time soon.

Hurricane Jeanne has come and gone, just a few weeks after the drencher named Frances.

McWhite and his partner Tony Green slowly make their way through a South Tampa neighborhood, cutting down limp tree branches and setting them aside for debris crews.

"It's exhausting," said McWhite, 31. "We're going on 28 hours now. But we have a job to do."

Jeanne left plenty of messy, exhausting jobs for city workers, utility crews, law enforcement officers, firefighters, businesses and homeowners across Hillsborough County.

Falling trees and wind knocked out power to tens of thousands of people. In southeastern Hillsborough, Jeanne's winds left trailers a crumpled mess and sent shingles from expensive homes flying. The Alafia River rose throughout the day as homeowners watched with dread.

Hundreds of traffic lights across the county went dark, and traffic crashes followed. Heavy trees fell, damaging homes and in three cases crushing Tampa police cars.

Above all, Jeanne tested the patience of Hillsborough residents who've had their fill of hurricane food, plywood, hot sticky nights without air conditioning, and yards full of branches.

Keith Bucklew spent hours after Tropical Storm Frances in his yard, filling 20 trash bags with debris.

Monday morning, just a few days after a debris truck came and hours after he lost power for the second time in three weeks, Bucklew was in his front yard again _ trash bag in hand, sweat on brow.

"This is very agitating," said Bucklew, 60, who lives on Maryland Avenue in South Tampa."

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More than 165,000 Tampa Electric customers in Hillsborough County remained without power as of noon Monday, including 35,000 in Tampa, said TECO officials.

In Hillsborough, the hardest-hit areas for power outages were in the southeast _ from Brandon east to Plant City, and south to Apollo Beach and Ruskin.

Crews began making repairs Sunday afternoon, and 300 linemen and tree trimmers from other states drove in Monday to help weary local crews.

TECO Energy President John Ramil warned that power restoration will take longer than with Frances because the utility's resources are stretched so thin after the recent succession of hurricanes.

In the meantime, residents are improvising _ not always in the safest ways.

Early Sunday morning, six adults and two babies were left homeless after a burning candle sparked a fire in their wood house at 2106 E 17th Ave. near Ybor City. They escaped, and several Tampa police officers pooled their money to put the family up in a motel, said Maj. George McNamara.

After seeing a Lutz resident trim away fallen branches near sagging power lines, TECO customer service representative Susan Smith urged people to keep their distance from the lines.

"We can't assume they (power lines) are dead," she said.

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County code enforcement director Dexter Barge, who's leading 30 damage assessment teams, said preliminary reports show 235 structures sustained damage from Jeanne _ including 41 with major damage and four that were destroyed.

And yet, "We really did not get much structural damage at all," Barge said. "You won't find an entire mobile home park destroyed, but you'll find a mobile home or two damaged."

In Apollo Beach, Bill Casey and his wife, Patricia, assessed the damage at Caribbean Isles, a manufactured home community. Bill Casey had to call a neighbor in Ohio with the news that her sunroom now was letting in the sun _ its roof had blown off completely.

"She's scared and crying," said Casey, 62. "We're devastated here."

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Power outages from Jeanne left traffic lights across the county dark, forcing law enforcement officers to man the busiest intersections.

Hillsborough Emergency Operations Center spokesman Dennis LeMonde said 110 traffic lights in the unincorporated areas of the county were out, and he knew of 14 road closures due to flooding or infrastructure damage.

Within Tampa, nearly 60 traffic lights were still out Monday afternoon.

All day Monday, police scanners crackled with the chatter of emergency dispatchers talking about accidents. Earlier in the morning, an intersection without power factored into a crash involving a Hillsborough sheriff's patrol car.

Wanda Townsend, 54, of Plant City was in her Dodge at Durant and Turkey Creek roads about 12:30 a.m. when she drove south into the intersection.

At the same time, deputy Christopher DePolis was driving east into the intersection on his way to a burglary, according to a sheriff's report. He and passenger Amy Pinner were in a marked patrol car with the emergency lights on. The patrol car hit the Dodge, then hit a building.

Pinner, 25, remains hospitalized at Tampa General Hospital, where DePolis, 27, and Townsend were treated and released, according to the sheriff's office. No charges were filed.

"It's just more hurricane-related stuff," said sheriff's spokesman Lt. Rod Reder, his voice weary.

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Four Tampa police cars were hit by trees or debris during the storm, with one sustaining $7,000 in damage, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. No one was injured.

At the Police Athletic League's headquarters near Rome Avenue in Tampa, the concession stand was ruined after the roof blew off and water poured in.

The storm even impeded a homicide investigation. After a 33-year-old man was shot in the back Sunday night, police had to bring in a spotlight to investigate the crime scene because the apartment where it happened had no power, McElroy said.

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Along the Alafia River in Valrico, residents strapped canoes to trees and waited for the water to rise Monday. They didn't have to wait long.

The National Weather Service in Ruskin expected the Alafia to crest this morning at 19.5 feet, or 6.5 feet above flood stage _ slightly lower than the flooding after Frances two weeks ago, when water covered entire trailers and pooled several feet deep inside homes raised on stilts.

All afternoon, residents whose homes already were gutted scrambled to save their remaining possessions.

"This is too much," said Wayde Grooms, 51, who recently invested $10,000 to remodel his elevated trailer on Lithia-Pinecrest Road. The water came within several feet of his home last time, but nothing reached inside. This time, he braced for the worst.

"It's coming in faster this time."

Staff writer Josh Zimmer contributed to this report.