Before freeze comes frenzy

With record lows expected, Floridians race to prepare plants and people for what is predicted to be an icy, but short, blast.

By JAN WESNER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 3, 2008

Anxious strawberry growers and other farmers are bracing themselves this morning after forecasters predicted record low temperatures - and perhaps a devastating freeze - would hit the area.

The bone-chilling cold front that moved in from Canada on New Year's night was expected to continue across the region through today. It will bring with it the potential for lows not seen on this date in St. Petersburg in nearly 30 years, as well as possible record temperatures for Tampa and other communities.

Overnight lows Wednesday were forecast to dip below freezing in the bay area and into the teens in North Suncoast counties. Highs today were expected in the 50s.

Meteorologists warned people to protect plants, pets and exposed pipes. Homeless shelters opened for the night and utility companies readied for record demand.

In eastern Hillsborough County, strawberry growers watched the mercury as they hoped to avoid a repeat of the devastating freeze of 1989.

"I guess you could call us all optimists, but when it gets this cold you could wake up without a job," Gary Parke, who has 250 acres of strawberry fields at Parkesdale Farms in Dover, said Wednesday afternoon.

Workers fanned out across the fields Wednesday, picking as much ripe fruit as they could and making sure irrigation systems were ready to go.

Growers protect their berries by spraying them with overhead sprinklers. The action of the water freezing on the berries generates heat, which protects the fruit, said Gary Wishnatzki, whose family farms 1,100 acres of strawberries.

But Wishnatzki and other growers were worried because the process only works if it's not too windy. The National Weather Service in Ruskin was predicting winds up to 20 mph.

Wind blows away the water being sprayed from the sprinklers, meaning some berries don't get covered.

"This is reminiscent of some of the bad freezes we had back in the '80s," Wishnatzki said.

Strawberry plants can recover, Parke said, but that could take up to two months. By then, the peak of Florida's strawberry season will be over.

"Out of 12 months the farmer makes by far 80 percent of his money in the next two months that he might lose," Parke said.

The weather service predicted temperatures as low as 28 degrees in Tampa overnight and near 30 degrees across much of Pinellas County.

Meteorologist Nick Petro said the last time it got that cold at Tampa International Airport was Jan. 24, 2003. The lowest temperature ever recorded for today in St. Petersburg was 32 degrees at Albert Whitted Airport in 1979, Petro said.

The wind chill was expected to be 15 to 20 degrees.

The forecast was more frigid for outlying areas. Temperatures were expected in the teens in Hernando and Citrus counties, prompting a "killing freeze" warning - meaning temperatures below 28 degrees for more than three hours. Temperatures in eastern Pasco were expected to be near 20.

Petro said that's cold enough to snow, if we weren't in the midst of a dry spell.

"That could happen, if we had some moisture," Petro said. "But the air is very, very dry."

Local utility companies expected record-breaking electricity use, since Floridians rely heavily on electric heat.

The Florida Reliability Coordinating Council, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring reliable electric power, issued a generating capacity advisory on Wednesday. The advisory is basically a "heads up" to utilities that all power plants will likely be needed to meet the demand, said Linda Campbell, the council's vice president.

Gov. Charlie Crist sent out an executive order Wednesday that temporarily allows trucks carrying produce to exceed usual height and weight restrictions. The intent is to give farmers as many options as possible for transporting and processing crops before the freeze.

Billy Simmons, owner of Simmons Farms in Dover, spent New Year's Eve watching the University of South Florida Bulls play in the Sun Bowl in Texas. He planned to make a leisurely trip back home this week, but instead he and his wife left Tuesday and drove straight through - 1,700 miles - to get back and help prepare their 80 acres of strawberries for the potential freeze.

Simmons said berries are particularly vulnerable because this is the season's first cold snap.

"They haven't acclimated to any cold weather," he said.

It's quite a change from December, when the average temperature was five degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service.

Tim Hennessy, who owns EkkWill Waterlife Resources, a tropical fish farm with operations in Hillsborough and De Soto counties, said he had been pumping warm water into his outdoor ponds all day Wednesday and would continue to do so through Friday.

Across the region, the freezing temperatures forced many homeless people indoors, in tents or into several layers of clothing.

Michael Douglas, 41, pulled on two pairs of pants and three coats and draped a blanket over his shoulders on Wednesday night.

"It's windy, but it's not bad if you bundle up," said Douglas, who is living at Pinellas Hope, the tent city in St. Petersburg. "It's better than being out on the streets. Here you get hot coffee."

In Tampa, the adults-only Salvation Army shelter at 1514 N Florida Ave. filled up by 7 p.m., said Hugh Harris, a desk monitor at the center.

"We've had to shuttle them to another shelter; the United Methodist Church in Hyde Park," he said.

And Metropolitan Ministries, which takes in families, reported space still available late Wednesday night, although many people had come by for blankets.

The cold snap, however forceful, will be short-lived. Temperatures are forecast to be back in the 70s by the weekend.

Times staff writers Lisa Buie, Asjylyn Loder, Amber Mobley and David DeCamp and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jan Wesner can be contacted at jwesner@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.