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Storms strike fast, sneak up on county

It all started in mid August with Bonnie.

Remember Bonnie? It was the precursor to Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. This series of storms _ preparing for them, enduring them (or breathing a sigh of relief when they missed Citrus) and cleaning up after them _ was the year's top story in Citrus.

Bonnie, the tropical storm with outer bands that barely skirted coastal Citrus, then headed northwest for a mediocre landfall at the Panhandle.

That was Aug. 12. Citrus Countians already knew their real D-Day was bound to be the following day, when a Category 2 hurricane named Charley was expected to bring winds in excess of 100 mph.

"This is a different type of storm," sheriff's Capt. Joe Eckstein, manager of the Emergency Operations Center in Lecanto, said as Charley approached. "There won't be much of a storm surge, or much rain, but it will have powerful Category 2 winds that will affect all of Citrus County."

But as everyone knows by now, Charley took an unexpected turn as it churned up the Gulf Coast of Florida, and made landfall in Charlotte County. Citrus barely felt a raindrop.

But Citrus' turn was coming.

In early September, with Hurricane Frances spinning in the Atlantic and making a tortoise-like crawl toward Florida, folks started lining up at the Cox Lumber in Inverness and Home Depot in Crystal River.

Some just needed a few supplies, since they had all the plywood they needed after preparing for a Hurricane Charley that never made an appearance. Others had to stock up, wary of Frances after seeing the damage Charley did elsewhere.

"We learned from Charley to take hurricanes seriously," said Nicole House, an Inverness mother of two and Cox Lumber customer. And if the boards didn't work, she added, "God will protect."

Frances wouldn't be another close call, though Citrus was fortunate enough to be on the back end of the storm's slow trek across the state.

Frances, a tropical storm by the time it reached Citrus, was so large and slow-moving that the county felt the immediate effects for two days.

The residual effects lasted for days. Frances, the first major wind storm in years, downed tree branches and power lines. About half the population of Citrus County lost power at some point during the storm, and some were out for 10 days to two weeks.

Meanwhile, frustrations grew as TV stations focused on coverage of the storm in the Tampa Bay area, and local radio stations' signals went out.

And at the county's Emergency Operations Center, the chief executive officer of Progress Energy Florida appeared before county leaders a few days after the storm to try to explain how the company was working to restore power. His message was not well-received.

County officials complained that Progress Energy ignored the county's priority list for power restoration _ priorities such as Citrus Memorial Hospital, which went without power for days.

"That completely floors me," Public Works director Ken Frink told Progress Energy representatives.

Flooding was a side effect of Frances, too, as a post-storm surge pushed water into low-lying areas of Crystal River and Homosassa. And while Citrus didn't suffer the brunt of Frances, some residents couldn't immediately return home, thanks to soggy, collapsed ceilings or trees that fell on top of homes.

Schools reopened after a week, once county officials determined how to house people who couldn't get back to their homes for days after the storm.

Once Citrus residents were back in their homes and offices, with air conditioners whirring and Internet connections up and running again, they heard once more from Progress Energy, in an acknowledgement that the company could have handled its power restoration efforts better.

"In some ways, Progress Energy did not perform to the level of excellence we expected," Martha Barnwell, regional vice president for Progress Energy Florida, wrote in a letter to the editor published in both local daily newspapers.

And for many residents in east Citrus, Frances wasn't over once the power was on and the tree limbs cleared.

Residents of the Arrowhead area, east of State Road 200 north of Hernando, braced for flooding as the Frances' torrential rains made their way up the Withlacoochee.

Time, the usual cure for flooding, was no comfort. Hurricane Ivan threatened in the gulf, though its destination was the Panhandle, not the Gulf Coast. Close behind it was Hurricane Jeanne, headed for Southeast Florida on a path similar to Frances, which made its Florida exit through Citrus and surrounding counties.

County residents and emergency officials braced for Jeanne, this time with a little more experience and know-how under their belts.

As strong winds reached more than 60 mph, county public information officers were more successful at convincing Tampa television to carry reports from Citrus.

They also made arrangements with local cable access station WYKE, which helped set up a plan for a small religious radio station to broadcast Citrus information if other stations lost their signals again.

Yet problems persisted. For the second time, the state was slow in getting poststorm emergency supplies of water and ice to Citrus. And little could be done for residents of northeast Citrus as they watched hurricane rains flood the Withlacoochee.

The next month, at a meeting where emergency officials reviewed their performance during hurricane season and made suggestions about what could be done better, they agreed that they will be better equipped next time, and know what to expect.

Said Capt. Joe Eckstein, emergency operations manager: "This was a great dress rehearsal for Citrus County."

Amy Wimmer Schwarb can be reached at 860-7305 or wimmersptimes.com.

PAST TOP STORIES

Past stories of the year in Citrus County:

2003: The weather (heavy rains and flooding)

2002: Halls River Retreat and growth management

2001: Terrorist attacks and aftermath

2000: The weather (drought, brush fires).

1999: Juvenile violent crime.

1998: The weather (floods in Arrowhead, excessive rain, heat and tornadoes).

Two sailboats bang against the seawall Sept. 9 outside Crackers Restaurant as Hurricane Frances sweeps through Crystal River. Battered by heavy winds, the boats broke free of their moorings. Stray boats were only one hassle from Frances, which left a bad aftertaste with flooding, downed trees and extended power outages for days after it passed.

Clyde Brown, left, and Raymond Abell set up a generator by the dim illumination of a flashlight in Inverness late Sept. 8. They got the generator for their mother-in-law, who uses an oxygen machine. Many went for weeks without power.

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