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Homes flooded by Lake Manatee

Associated Press

BRADENTON — Emergency officials urged the evacuation of more than 600 homes downstream from Lake Manatee after a flood gate jammed on a dam for more than 12 hours Sunday. A handful of nearby homes flooded.

Divers and crews working with a crane and cables finally forced the gate open. At 3 p.m., the lake was about 3 feet higher than its normal level of 38 feet deep, said Jay Moyles, a Manatee County spokesman. The lake had peaked at nearly 43 feet as heavy rains fell in the area about 40 miles southeast of Tampa.

A total of 235 people went to two public schools in Bradenton and Palmetto that opened as shelters, Moyles said.

Moyles said the dam’s operations were back to normal late Sunday and he didn’t expect many more homes would be in danger of flooding. He did not know exactly how many homes were evacuated or flooded.

Meteorologists predicted little rain overnight — maybe a quarter of an inch — in areas around the lake. Manatee County had 1 to 3 inches of rain Sunday and could have that much Monday, when there’s a 50 percent chance of rain, National Weather Service meteorologist Frank Alsheimer said late Sunday.

Earlier in the day, water streamed into the 2,400-acre lake faster than the flood gates could release it. The lake was rising as high as 8,000 cubic feet per second in the morning. At first, workers could only get the flood gate, one of three, halfway open, which wasn’t enough to drain the lake.

But by Sunday afternoon, the lake was falling by 7,000 cubic feet per second, Moyles said.

“It’s nowhere near like what it was,” said Larry Leinhauser, spokesman for Manatee County public safety emergency operations.

The water pushed close to emergency spillways that have never been used, but water had not reached the earth-walled channels designed to divert water away from the lake, Leinhauser said.

Engineers were not worried about the integrity of the concrete dam on the Manatee River, but he said downstream residents had been “strongly advised” to leave. Older, low-lying homes were most vulnerable to flooding because newer homes have been built on higher pads.

The river crested at a record 20 feet, or 9 feet above flood stage, at Myakka Head above the dam early Sunday. The National Weather Service expects the river to stay above flood stage near the dam until Tuesday afternoon.

While officials were busy trying to stabilize the dam gate, a single-engine plane carrying two people made a hard landing east of the dam, Leinhauser said. There were no injuries.

An area of deep tropical moisture in the Louisiana Gulf Coast has generated heavy showers and thunderstorms for days.

The storms dropped 4 to 6 inches of rain Sunday along a 100-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast from Sarasota to Bayport, causing isolated coastal flooding, said Eric Oglesby, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Ruskin.

“We’ve been getting hit every day for about a week now,” he said. Fewer showers are expected Monday, and “we should dry out on Tuesday.”

More than 10 inches had fallen since Wednesday southeast of Tampa. Scattered sections of Manatee and Citrus counties reported up to 20 inches last week. A flood watch was in effect in 18 Florida counties until Monday evening.

“We’ve gotten torrential downpours here. It’s been a mess,” Leinhauser said. “Like my neighborhood. I could have swam out of it this morning.”

Isolated street flooding was reported in St. Petersburg, Largo and Pinellas Park after more than 2 inches of rain fell since noon Saturday. Ocala got even more.

The counties under a flood watch are Charlotte, Citrus, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lee, Levy, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Sarasota and Sumter.

Southern Leon County is covered by a flood warning through noon Monday as rainwater flows into the Lake Bradford chain of lakes and Munson Slough.