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SR 200 span closed due to flooding

State and local officials shut down the State Road 200 bridge indefinitely Wednesday night, concerned that the rising Withlacoochee River may be washing out the bridge's supports.

The closure, believed to be the first in decades due to flooding, was another sobering reminder of how significant the flooding problem has become. The bridge experiences about 12,200 trips daily, according to a traffic count taken last year by the Florida Department of Transportation.

"In the 21 years I've been here, I can never remember having to shut that bridge down," County Commission Chairman Josh Wooten said. "This certainly shows the magnitude of the flood. We're talking about damaged infrastructure, a major artery in our county, a major inconvenience, the economic impact "This is going to be a rough two weeks, but we can get through it."

Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service reported that the Withlacoochee at Holder is as deep as 10.75 feet, nearly 3 feet above flood stage and 2 feet above where homes are affected. Forecasters say the river could reach 11.10 feet by Monday. However, county officials have said the river could rise as high as 12.5 feet by early to mid October, though weather officials could not confirm that.

The river has crested above 12 feet only twice before, and 11 feet only four times in history.

Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, who was driving with deputies to close the bridge personally Wednesday, had requested that the bridges be inspected by state transportation officials a day earlier, when flood waters were approaching the bridges at SR 200, State Road 44 E and County Road 48.

The decision to close the SR 200 bridge came Wednesday afternoon after the river's currents kept DOT divers from closely inspecting the bridge's structural integrity. Transportation officials are concerned that water was washing away soil around the pilings of the bridge, which was built in 1935.

With divers deterred, DOT sent two of its engineering contractors to take measurements using something similar to a weighted measuring tape. DOT officials were unsettled by the results of what they saw when compared with historical measurements.

"We do have some preliminary measurements that show that we've lost some material around the bridge support," spokeswoman Kris Carson said Wednesday. "So we want to do further investigation."

Carson said the closure could last several days.

"Until the water recedes, and we can do the inspection," she said, "we're taking the traffic off the bridge."

Sheriff's and county officials are preparing detour plans for the public while the state is preparing detour signs, said county road maintenance director Larry Brock.

"We stand ready to help them should they need it," he said.

Residents living in Hernando or areas north of the town can use County Road 39 to U.S. 41 to Marion County Road 484.

People who live in Floral City or Inverness can take SR 44 E to Interstate 75 to connect to Marion County, Wooten said.

No other bridges on the Withlacoochee River have been found to be in danger, Wooten said, and the bridges on SR 44 E and CR 48 were found to be sound. However, the commissioner said, he is also requesting inspections on all bridges that cross the river.

In other storm-related news:

Electricity: Progress Energy Florida reported 801 Citrus customers were without power as of 3 p.m. Wednesday. The utility has 41,145 customers in Citrus and restored power to 26,538 in the aftermath of Jeanne, company spokesman Mac Harris said.

Sumter Electric Cooperative reported 1,037 customers were without power as of early Wednesday, but restorations throughout the day reduced the amount significantly, said a spokesman. Crews had not returned to update the outage numbers until Wednesday night.

SECO spokesman Barry Bowman said Wednesday afternoon that the utility company would most likely have all its Citrus customers restored by Wednesday night.

Withlacoochee Regional Electric Cooperative had 117 Citrus customers without power as of Wednesday afternoon.

"Crews continue to work toward our goal to have power restored by midnight today (Thursday)," said Ernie Holzhauer, WREC spokesman.

Damage assessments from Jeanne: Here are the latest: In unincorporated Citrus County, 161 homes and 36 businesses sustained minor damage, 109 homes and nine businesses sustained major damage and 41 homes and one business was destroyed, according to the latest count.

The assessments will continue by the county building officials today, development services director Gary Maidhof said, and most areas should have been seen except those obstructed by flooding.

"My guys don't have boats," he said.

In the city of Inverness, 11 homes and four businesses sustained minor damage and two businesses were destroyed. Assessments from Crystal River were not available, according to the Citrus County Sheriff's Office.

Special needs: Although the county has opened two shelters (see details, page 2), neither is equipped to accommodate people with special medical needs. Such residents _ if they also are age 60 or older and live in a flood-prone area without people nearby to take care of them _ might qualify for a temporary housing program, according to the Citrus County Health Department.

For details, call 746-6555 and ask for Rusty Harry.