Jaws clenched and hands gripped on steering wheels, Long Island drivers are getting rattled by potholes.

It's a "pothole epidemic," one Suffolk highway superintendent says. In an aggressive campaign, the Town of Islip has repaired 19,758 potholes since the start of the year, and Nassau road crews filled 600 holes in a single day earlier this week.

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Some town employees are assigned exclusively to hole-filling duty, and auto shops say they are seeing three times the typical number of pothole repairs.

Dimitri Ioannides' Mercedes was a recent casualty. He hit a pothole Saturday in East Meadow and said it felt like his car "broke in half."

He spent Monday parting with $560 for two new tires and upset that his wife, who normally uses the car, had to commute to Brooklyn by train. "Do you understand what one pothole did to an entire family?" said Ioannides, 50.

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Pothole watchers blame a wet winter with a high number of thaw and freeze cycles for turning pockets of moisture under roads into jackhammers.

"We've never seen anything like this," said Steve Walchak, 27, assistant manager of Somerset Tire Service in East Meadow, where Ioannides' car was fixed. "Blown tires, bent rims - and it's all pothole-related."

In Suffolk, some East End public works officials said an inability to meet annual repaving and repair needs due to shrinking budgets in recent years had left road networks vulnerable to winter assault. "If you have a resurfacing program on a rotating basis and you break that process for a couple of years," said Southold Highway Superintendent Peter Harris, "then everything starts falling apart at once."

Brookhaven Highway Superintendent John Rouse, who called the current situation an "epidemic," said workers were called in at 8 a.m. Saturday but ran out of fill material by midafternoon.

Now more than 175 highway employees - most of the staff - are on pothole duty from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, he said.

Nassau Public Works Commissioner Shila Shah-Gavnoudias said that, with double the number of repair crews on the road, county workers filled 600 potholes using 20 tons of hot asphalt on Monday alone.

As the counties, towns and villages struggle to bring the situation under control, auto shops are having a bonanza, with some reporting the largest number of pothole-related repairs they've ever seen.

"It's actually good for my business," said a chuckling Fred Faber, 50, of Faber Brothers Automotive Repair in Brightwaters. "I hope they don't fix them."

In some locations, the scale of the pothole work being done has exploded. In Islip during January and February, 17,784 potholes were fixed, compared with 1,426 in the first two months of 2009.

A good portion of that increase can be attributed to the town's campaign to fix the holes, "Operation Pothole," said the town's acting public works commissioner Rich Baker, who keeps a sign in his office that tracks the effort's progress. Tuesday, the sign carried the total 19,758 for 2010 to date. But mostly, he said, the rise in repairs is due to the sheer number of potholes that suddenly need attention.

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Grant Hendricks, president of Bimasco Inc. in Hauppauge, has been in the road business for nearly 50 years. This season, he said, is the worst he's seen.

He cautions that repair work being done now, even with hot asphalt rather than cold patch materials, is unlikely to yield great results. Cold pavement is tough to fix, he said. More lasting repairs won't be done until spring.

Until then, "it's just fighting an endless battle," Hendricks said.

With Mitchell Freedman, Jennifer Maloney, Patrick Whittle, Gwen Young