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Dam engineers open spillgate on fast-filling lake

More rain predicted for soaked area south of Tampa Bay

Lake Manatee dam is releasing 7 million gallons of water per hour, a Manatee County official said.
Lake Manatee dam is releasing 7 million gallons of water per hour, a Manatee County official said.

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Heavy rains and a stuck spill gate at a dam in Manatee County, Florida, threaten nearby homes
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BRADENTON, Florida (CNN) -- Engineers managed to manually crank open one of three spillgates on the Lake Manatee dam in an effort to speed drainage from the lake, which had reached record levels and threatened Manatee County's riverside and lakeside communities.

Two of the dam's spillgates opened late Saturday night, but the third jammed, prompting emergency officials to order hundreds of homes evacuated as water approached the top of the 50-foot-high dam.

"We do have some homes that have some damage," said Capt. Larry Leinhauser of the Manatee County Department of Public Safety, noting that some older houses in the rural area between the lake and Tampa Bay were not elevated, as construction codes now require.

The spillgate was pried open just as more rain prompted the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning for the area.

"As soon as we got the gate open, we got the flash flood warning, saying we were going to get 3-5 inches of rain an hour for the next two hours," Leinhauser said.

But, he said, having the third gate open put the county "in a much better place than we were earlier."

"We're letting out 7 million gallons an hour now," he said. "It's going to be a gradual thing, but we are losing some of the pressure now with the gate all the way open."

Engineers were still at the dam, he said, working to find out what caused the spillgate to malfunction and making sure it was stabilized.

The water level on the lake remained at just under 43 feet, he said, five feet above normal.

Stranded passengers wait at Miami International Airport. Weather-related delays were also reported at airports in Orlando and Tampa.
Stranded passengers wait at Miami International Airport. Weather-related delays were also reported at airports in Orlando and Tampa.

Officials had expected a breach to occur about 10 a.m., sending floodwaters pouring out over the spillways, but instead the water levels dropped slightly, giving the engineers more time.

Leinhauser said officials "decided to be proactive" and ordered evacuations for 500-600 homes near the 38-year-old dam.

Shelters for evacuees were opened at Tillman Elementary School in Palmetto and Braden River Elementary School in Bradenton, across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from St. Petersburg, Leinhauser said.

The south side of Tampa Bay has been deluged by about a foot of rain in the past week. The Manatee River, which flows across the county and into the bay, was 8-9 feet above flood stage.

Several roads in the area were closed because of flooding or potential flash floods. News crews rode airboats onto flooded streets, where newer houses sat on stilts just above the water levels. Some older homes were submerged.


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