State citrus crop escapes damage

A group of sixth-graders at Mims Elementary School at Brevard County take a break from their studies to try to catch light snowflakes on their tongues Friday. The first wave of an arctic cold front swept through the state, bringing a wind chill that pushed already-plunging temperatures below freezing in several regions.

(AP Photo)
Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 12:32 a.m.
MIAMI - Florida's $9 billion-a-year citrus crop escaped major damage Friday as an arctic cold front brought freezing temperatures throughout much of the state and a rare snow flurry in some regions.
But the worst wasn't necessarily over as growers braced for a second night of frigid weather.
Though the mercury dipped as low as 15 degrees in Panama City Beach and 19 in Jacksonville before dawn Friday, citrus farmers said temperatures in the prime growing region farther south did not fall below 28 for more than four hours, the threshold for damage.
"We flirted with it. We stepped to the edge, but we're fine," said grower Dan Richey of Vero Beach, which recorded a relatively safe low of 31.
Temperatures were expected to plummet into the teens again Friday night and this morning in parts of North Florida.
While the rest of the state will have lows in the 30s and 40s, growers were still worried about possible crop damage.
Nevertheless, Casey Pace, a spokeswoman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry group, was optimistic that temperatures would remain above levels that could hurt citrus crops.
Unfortunately, frigid weather doesn't slow the spread of citrus canker, a disease that causes unsightly lesions on fruit and weakens trees, Pace said.
The worst of the cold front will have passed through the state by Saturday afternoon, with temperatures creeping back toward normal, said Tim Barry, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Tallahassee.
"You just run the heat and pray when the bill comes in," Barry said.
Meanwhile, light ocean-effect snow fell for about an hour Friday from Cape Canaveral to Daytona Beach on the state's central Atlantic coast, said Michael Gittinger, an NWS meteorologist in Melbourne. There was no snow accumulation on the ground, but it was the first snow in the area since December 1989.
Air Force Lt. Michael Jennings said that at a NASA meeting at dawn Friday, no one took him seriously when he and other meteorologists said it might snow at Cape Canaveral. When the prediction came true, "I couldn't believe it myself," he said.
The weather also surprised citrus growers, who were anticipating even colder temperatures. But Richey, the Vero Beach citrus farmer, said as long as temperatures Saturday don't drop below the 28-degree threshold for more than four hours, cold weather actually helps trees produce more and higher-quality fruit.
But strawberry growers may not have been so lucky, said Ila Allen, spokeswoman for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.
"We have all of our fields completely under ice. It looks like a snowy white Christmas out here," she said.
Growers started using overhead irrigation Friday night and would continue to do so until the temperatures reached above freezing, she said. They won't be able to fully assess damage until the crops thaw out early next week, she said.
"Nobody is looking at a plant loss," she said. "The fruit that was on the plants last night will likely be lost."
Although she couldn't give a dollar amount, Allen said the damage could be substantial because the strawberry harvesting season is roughly at its halfway point.
The freeze also sent many homeless to shelters throughout the state.
"I about froze to death but last night I was blessed. I got into the (Waterfront Rescue) Mission to stay," said Raymond Shimer, who tried to stay warm Friday afternoon in Plaza Ferdinand, a downtown park in Pensacola.
Anthony Knight braved temperatures in the mid-30s for a rally in a downtown Tampa park Friday afternoon for the Super Bowl-bound Buccaneers.
"The wind chill is bad, but supporting the Tampa Bay Bucs, I can take it," said Knight, 36, of his hometown team.
A hard freeze warning for north and central Florida and a freeze warning for the central coast and southern interior was in effect until Saturday morning.
Power plants across the state reported reaching record demand as Floridians turned up their heating, briefly knocking out electricity in Tallahassee and Volusia County.
Cities throughout the state hit record lows early Friday. Miami beat the Jan. 24 record of 38 degrees set in 1940 by 1 degree. West Palm Beach hit a record low of 33 degrees, 4 degrees below the previous Jan. 24 low set in 1960. Panama City Beach dropped to 15 degrees, shattering the day's record of 26 degrees set in 1994. Jacksonville fell to 19 degrees, below the day's record of 24 degrees set in 1963.

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