Chilled, but not shaken

Strawberries and citrus survive the overnight freeze.

By JAN WESNER and CASEY CORA, Times Staff Writers
Published January 4, 2008

DOVER -- Strawberry growers battled the elements all night and then watched and waited Thursday, not knowing the fate of their crops after a night of freezing temperatures.

The verdict: damage, but not the devastation some had predicted.

"It's doable, but who wants to think, 'Dang, I'm at a loss already,'" Gary Parke of Parkesdale Farms in Plant City, said Thursday afternoon as he noticed tinges of brown on some plants.

The mercury bottomed out at 34 degrees early Thursday at Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg, 29 degrees in Tampa, and tied a record low of 27 degrees in Lakeland, the National Weather Service said. Hernando and Citrus counties recorded temperatures in the 20s.

Parke said he recorded 26 degrees in his east Hillsborough fields. Other nearby farmers saw similar temperatures below 30 degrees throughout the night.

About 21 of Parke's 250 acres were left vulnerable for 90 minutes when an irrigation pipe burst Wednesday night. Growers spray water to insulate their plants from a hard freeze.

Parke said it was too early be sure if all 21 acres of plants were lost because damage sometimes takes a few days to show. Affected farmers may be eligible for federal loans or -- if damage is widespread -- a supplemental federal appropriation, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis said.

"It's a shame. Twenty acres of damage, and they won't be picking for weeks," said Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who toured Parkesdale Farms Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, the state's citrus industry "dodged a bullet," the Lakeland's Florida Citrus Mutual said Thursday. One local citrus grower, Boyett's Grove east of Brooksville, came through the night in good shape, owner Kathy Oleson said. Even the most sensitive fruits -- lemons and limes -- had no damage.

"So far, it looks pretty good," she said. "We got right to the edge, but the time frame was okay."

This week's temperatures were the coldest by far this winter after an unusually warm December.

More than 300 people sought warmth in Pinellas emergency shelters Wednesday night and an overflow crowd of 175 filled the Salvation Army shelter in Tampa.

At St. Cecilia's Catholic Church shelter in Clearwater, a record 126 people spent the night Wednesday, said Michael Amidei, shelter coordinator for the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless. The shelter at Northwest Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg had 122 people, also a record, said Amidei.

Paul Lyden, 56, normally lives at the "tent city" in St. Petersburg but sought out St. Cecilia's.

"When it gets this cold, you have to go inside," Lyden said. "You can't be in a tent that much, especially with the wind."

Tampa Electric had scattered outages, spokesman Rick Morera said. Power was out Thursday afternoon at about 1,200 homes in Plant City, Lithia and Oldsmar. Progress Energy Florida didn't hit a new winter-peak record and was able to meet the demand, spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said.

Thursday night's expected low in the upper 30s Thursday night should give way to a high today of about 65 degrees, National Weather Service forecaster Tom Dougherty said.

"It only really gets cold for one or two nights," he said.

Billy Simmons checked his 80 acres of strawberries just before sunrise Thursday and saw a good sign: The ice covering the crop had frozen clear, meaning the irrigation system did its job.

Simmons estimated Wednesday's overnight winds at his Dover farm at only 5 mph, not the predicted 20 mph. That means the sprinkler system was able to evenly coat the field.

"Everything's good," said Shad Simmons, Billy's son, as he returned from an early-morning trip scouting Simmons Farms' fields for damage. Icicles were hanging from the fender of his pickup.

"I haven't seen this much ice in a long time," he said.

Tim Hennessy, a tropical fish farmer with operations in Hillsborough and DeSoto counties, said he won't know the full impact of the cold for several weeks. While his fish seemed fine, cold stress can cause disease and other problems later.

Some ornamental-plant growers moved their stock into greenhouses Wednesday night as a precaution.

Regardless of the damage, one thing is certain for strawberry growers: Cold weather lengthens the interval between harvests, which typically take place every three days. Now, that might be pushed back to every fourth or fifth day, Simmons said.

The freeze's impact was evident at Brandon Farms, where the motto is "Fresh to you as God blesses us." Workers there and at other area farms picked all the fruit that was ripe on Wednesday. Brandon Farms' stand on State Road 60 was open Thursday and serving up fresh strawberry shortcake and strawberry pizza.

"It's amazing that people that will come out for a strawberry milkshake," manager Debbie Holt said.

Times staff writers Asjylyn Loder, Catherine E. Shoichet, Melanie Ave and Doug Bennett contributed to this report. Jan Wesner can be contacted at jwesner@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.

Low temperatures Thursday across the Tampa Bay area, according to the National Weather Service

The rain of iguanas

It was raining iguanas in South Florida on Thursday morning, the Miami Herald reports. Iguanas live in trees, and when it gets too cold, they start to drop, littering the ground with seemingly lifeless bodies. In reality, they're more like in suspended animation, said Robert Yero, park manager at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne. "We have found dozens on the bike path after a major cold snap," Yero told the Herald. "When they warm up in the sun, they come back to life."