PLANT CITY — The people of Plant City are polite. They sprinkle their sentences with "ma'am" and "sir." They help their neighbors in times of need, and they cheerfully engage strangers on the phone.
This week, some residents tried to extend their cordiality to nearby farmers, who sprayed millions of gallons of water on their plants to protect them during the cold snap, causing a dramatic 60-foot drop in the aquifer that triggered sinkholes and caused wells to go dry.
But knowing they could be on the hook for thousands of dollars in repairs, some homeowners have found it hard not to be upset with farmers. About 600 people have reported problems with their wells, and repairs could run up to $6,000 per well, said Southwest Florida Water Management District spokeswoman Robyn Felix.
On Friday, people without water trickled into local fire stations to pick up free bottled water, which became available after the county decided Thursday to declare a state of emergency.
Many residents had been buying bottled water for days, including Plant City homeowner Leni Curd, 43, whose well dried up Tuesday. She's been using bottled water to flush the toilet and cook. She showers at her son's house.
"I understand the berry farmers, and by no means with this current economy do I want someone to lose their livelihood," she said. "But we're going to have to dip into our savings."
That money was meant for her family's security and for medical expenses, she said — not lowering the pipes in her well.
Still, she sympathizes with farmers. Only one thing makes her mad:
A friend told her she knows of a strawberry farmer who didn't monitor the temperatures on cold nights to make sure he used his sprinklers only when absolutely necessary. He just turned them on each night, regardless, Curd said.
"That makes me furious," she said.
Plant City strawberry farmer Carl Grooms said he doesn't know of any farmers who would just turn on their sprinklers and go to bed.
"We're out there monitoring to make sure there's no unnecessary loss of water," he said.
Also, farmers have to monitor their fields to make sure irrigation equipment doesn't malfunction, he said. A broken engine or pipe would stop an even water flow, and large portions of their valuable crop could be lost.
He asked for neighboring residents to be understanding.
"This is a record phenomenon that just occurred," he said. "It doesn't happen every year. Bear with us. … We're just trying to protect our crops, and this is the best means we know of."
Some residents experiencing problems with their wells may be reimbursed by farmers, but only if their home predates the farmer's field, Felix said.
Cynthia Williamson, 56, said she hopes she qualifies. Her well has been dry since Sunday morning. She and her husband have gone through dozens of gallons of Publix drinking water.
"It couldn't have come at a worse time," she said. "If we have to drop our well down, that will cost us money right after Christmas, and money was tight already."
The Powells already know they'll have to pay for their problems.
Their homeowners insurance doesn't cover repairs on the sinkhole they discovered near their driveway Tuesday night, and farmers aren't required to reimburse people for sinkholes.
Betty Powell, 73, said the ground fell another foot after the first night. The hole is now 5 feet deep. Her husband, Rufus Powell, 81, goes outside to check on it every couple of hours.
Still, they don't worry.
"I put it in the Lord's hands," Betty Powell said. "I said, 'God, you know what the situation is, and you're the only one who can take care of it.' I mean, it could have done swallowed this entire house."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.