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Utilities move toward restoring power

Pardon his pun, but Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative spokesman Ernie Holzhauer said Tuesday that there is "light at the end of the tunnel" for customers without power.

The power company, which supplies electricity to the bulk of county residents, is aiming to have all power lost during Hurricane Jeanne restored by midnight Thursday.

Progress Energy customers in Hernando County can expect to get their power back by midnight Friday at the latest, said spokeswoman Deborah Shipley. The number of Withlacoochee River Electric customers without power dropped dramatically from 16,325 to 5,126 overnight Tuesday, but progress slowed during the day as line crews began the smaller repairs needed in individual neighborhoods, Holzhauer said.

Though many of the 3,099 customers still without power as of 5 p.m. Tuesday will have electricity restored before the Thursday goal, Holzhauer said the numbers wouldn't decrease as quickly as before.

"We're at an arduous point in restoration," he said. However, he reminded customers "it's only been less than 48 hours since a hurricane went through the area. And it's easy to lose perspective when we've been traumatized in the last several weeks by storms."

According to county officials who expect to finish their damage assessment today, the structural damage from Jeanne is significantly less extensive than that caused by Hurricane Frances.

County emergency management director Tom Leto said Jeanne damaged 46 homes in Hernando. Some were struck by fallen trees, others were flooded and others had their roofs damaged, he said.

Seven of the homes were uninhabitable, and Leto put the total damage to private residences at about $1.2-million. Still, Hernando was spared the worst of the hurricane.

"It could have been much worse," Leto said.

That's what one county commissioner wants to remind residents as they endure yet another storm cleanup. Though many are frustrated with power outages and the county's recovery effort, County Commissioner Tom Mylander said Tuesday he was tired of the critics.

Pointing out that he could speak bluntly while other commissioners might be unable to because he is not running for re-election, Mylander suggested that the complainers visit other parts of the state where the damage has been catastrophic.

"People had better just give a little more thought to how lucky they have been," Mylander said.

Of course, some residents aren't in the clear yet.

The Withlacoochee River continued to rise Tuesday. At the gauge in Trilby, the river reached 16.5 feet Tuesday morning, compared with 15.9 feet the day before. The flood stage is 12 feet.

Major flooding is expected there, with the National Weather Service forecasting that the river likely will crest at 16.8 feet on Sunday morning.

Moderate flooding is expected to occur for the rest of the week at Croom, which, at 11 feet Tuesday morning, was already 2 feet above the flood stage.

Only a few roads remained closed Tuesday, said Brenda Frazier, the county's community relations coordinator. Culbreath and Croom roads have reopened, but the county added Pocahontas Drive to the list of closed roads.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (352) 860-7303 or cjenkinssptimes.com.

Bill Hazelton of Key West lays out a wet bath mat while cleaning up the mobile home of Bruceand Beverly Gethen, the parents of his partner, Gary Gethen, in Brookridge on Tuesday. Hurricane Jeanne caused extensive damage to the Gethens' home, soaking the floors and tearing away the roof. Hazelton and Gethen drove up from Key West to arrange for repairing the home while Gethen's parents are on vacation. The Gethens live in the mobile home during the winter and spend the rest of the year in Ontario, Canada.

Mark Edenfield, who lives near the Withlacoochee River in Pasco County, motors through the swollen river near Lacoochee on Tuesday. The river reached 16.5 feet Tuesday morning and is expected to crest at 16.8 feet on Sunday. The flood stage is 12 feet.

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