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May 20, 2013

Small Florida city wonders who won Powerball jackpot

ZEPHYRHILLS, Fla. — Some lucky person walked into a Publix supermarket in suburban Florida over the past few days and bought a ticket now worth an estimated $590.5 million — the highest Powerball jackpot in history.

But it wasn’t Matthew Bogel. On Sunday, he loaded groceries into his car after shopping at the Publix. He shook his head when asked about the jackpot.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s so much money.”

It’s an amount too high for many to imagine. Compare it to the budget for the city of Zephyrhills: This year’s figure is just more than $49 million. The winning Powerball jackpot is 12 times that.

Whoever has the ticket hadn’t come forward as of Sunday afternoon.

“This would be the sixth Florida Powerball winner and right now, it’s the sole winner of the largest ever Powerball jackpot,” Florida Lottery executive Cindy O’Connell told The Associated Press. “We’re delighted right now that we have the sole winner.”

Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said that there are a lot of rumors about who won, but the store doesn’t know. “We’re excited for the winner or winners,” she said.

Florida Lottery spokesman David Bishop said Sunday afternoon that it was doubtful the winner would come forward that day. The ticket-holder can’t claim the prize until today when the agency opens, he said.

“It never happens this quickly,” Bishop said. “If they know they won, they’re going to contact their attorney or an accountant first so they can get their affairs in order.”

O’Connell said Florida has had more Powerball winners than any other state but did not give any indication whether anyone had stepped forward with the winning ticket in Saturday’s drawing.

But plenty of people in Zephyrhills — population 13,337 — are wondering whether it’s someone they know.

Joan Albertson drove to the Publix early Sunday morning with her camera in hand, in case the winner emerged. She said she had bought a ticket at a store across the street, and the idea of winning that much money was still something of a shock.

“Oh, there’s so much good that you could do with that amount of money.” Albertson said. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

Zephyrhills is a small city in Pasco County, about 30 miles northeast of downtown Tampa. Once a rural farming town, it’s now known as a hotbed for skydiving activity, and the home to large retiree mobile home parks and Zephyrhills bottled water.

And now, one lucky lottery ticket.

“I’m getting text messages and messages from Facebook going, ‘Uh, did you win the lottery?’” Sandra Lewis said. “No, I didn’t win, guys. Sorry.”

Sara Jeltis said her parents in Michigan texted her with the news Sunday morning.

“Well, it didn’t click till I came here,” she said, gesturing to the half-dozen TV live trucks humming in the Publix parking lot. “And I’m like, wow I can’t believe it. It’s shocking! Out of the whole country, this Publix, in little Zephyrhills would be the winner.”

With four out of every five possible combinations of Powerball numbers in play, lottery executives said Saturday that someone was almost certain to win the game’s highest jackpot, a windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars — and that’s after taxes.

The winning numbers were 10, 13, 14, 22 and 52, with a Powerball of 11.

Estimates had earlier put the jackpot at around $600 million. But Powerball’s online site said Sunday that the jackpot had reached an estimated $590.5 million.

The world’s largest jackpot was a $656 million Mega Millions jackpot in March 2012.

Terry Rich, CEO of the Iowa Lottery, initially confirmed that one Florida winning ticket had been sold. He told AP that following the Florida winner, the Powerball grand prize was being reset at an estimated jackpot of $40 million, or about $25.1 million cash value.

The chances of winning the prize were astronomically low: 1 in 175.2 million. That’s how many different ways you can combine the numbers when you play. But lottery officials estimated that about 80 percent of those possible combinations had been purchased recently.

While the odds are low for any one individual or individuals, O’Connell said, the chance that one hits paydirt is what makes Powerball exciting.

“There is just the chance that you will have the opportunity, and Florida is a huge Powerball state,” O’Connell said. “We have had more winners than any other state that participates in Powerball.”

The longshot odds didn’t deter people across Powerball-playing states — 43 plus Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands — from lining up at gas stations and convenience stores Saturday.

Clyde Barrow, a public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, specializes in the gaming industry. He said one of the key factors behind the ticket-buying frenzy is the size of the jackpot — people are interested in the easy investment.

“Even though the odds are very low, the investment is very small,” he said. “Two dollars gets you a chance.”

Lewis, who went to the Publix on Sunday to buy water, said she didn’t play — and she isn’t upset about it.

“Life goes on,” she said, shrugging. “I’m good.”

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