Shelters open, farmers keep watch through cold night in Pasco

The thermometer read 30 degrees when Alex Lozada started to work. He was one of the first awake Tuesday morning at Holy Ground, a homeless shelter in Hudson. While everyone else lingered in the comfort of their cots, Lozada gathered wood in a pit until blood seeped through the cold cracks in his knuckles. With a yellow lighter, he sparked a piece of cardboard and breathed life into the fire and into the morning.

Slowly, a crowd gathered, wearing donated clothes and knit caps and hanging cigarettes from their lips between sips of coffee. Most of them had been at Holy Ground for a while. Maybe four, including Lozada, came because of the cold — significantly fewer than director Lisa Barabas-Henry expected.

Cold shelters open in Pasco when the temperature drops below 36 degrees. Barabas-Henry knows this because she wrote the cold shelter guidelines. What she doesn't know is how people who need shelters find out about them. Ed Caum, Pasco's interim tourism director, said the county reached out to its nonprofit partners and local food banks to let them pass the word on to their clients. The information is written about in newspapers and broadcast on TV and radio, things that homeless people can't generally access.

"Police know we're here," she said. "Churches know we're here. Hospitals know. God forbid that we did this and someone died because they didn't know that we could help them."

Holy Ground accommodates visitors any way it can, with bunk beds, and roll-out cots and tents for when families come. They can stay as long as they like with no questions asked, Barabas-Henry said. Some have been there for years.

By 9 a.m., the fire was at full roar and Lozada took a spot at the edge to admire his work. The group circled around as Pastor Dan Johnson led the morning prayer and spoke about God promising food, forgiveness and fortitude. They offered thanks for bringing them to Holy Ground and ate a breakfast of oatmeal and hot cocoa.

Farmers, from citrus growers to cattle, felt relief after Monday night's cold snap.

None reported any damage. In fact, George Casey was downright happy.

"Our plants need a certain number of chill hours," said Casey, who counts strawberries and blueberries among his crops at his farm near Brooksville. The cold is necessary for those plants to produce fruit. Until this week, the winter has been unseasonably warm.

"We've got beautiful plants but no fruit," he said. "This will catch us up."

At the Gude family kumquat grove in the tiny community of St. Joseph, workers continued to pick and package the tangy fruit, which bore no ice Tuesday morning.

Manager Greg Gude woke up about every two hours overnight to check the crop, which is at its peak in time for the annual Kumquat Festival in Dade City on Jan. 25.

"We got to about 31 degrees about 6 a.m." he said. Temperatures have to be 28 degrees or below for at least four hours before damage occurs.

Crews spent the day before picking every ripe kumquat they could. They also inspected the irrigation system, which is prone to clogs from ants, dirt and calcium deposits.

A functioning system is critical as the water covers the base of the trees to help protect them from freezing weather.

"You can't do anything but save the trees," said Gude, who recalled the 2010 freeze that cost him half his crop and forced him to lay off employees.

"That was horrible," he said.

Johnny Melton, whose family grows oranges west of Trilby, reported lows of only about 32 degrees.

"We turned on the water pumps and went to bed," Melton said. He credited cloud cover and wind with keeping frost from settling in on the trees.

Larry Bartle, whose family runs a cattle ranch in the Darby area, said the cold posed no problems.

He said extreme cold can stress a heifer who is birthing a first calf and interfere with the bonding process. But his thermometers recorded lows of only about 30, so it wasn't an issue.

Shelters in Pasco were set to open Tuesday night as well. After that, January in Florida should be getting back to normal. Temperatures are expected to warm gradually through the week with a high of 63 today and reaching 81 by Friday.

Contact Alex Orlando at aorlando@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247. Contact Lisa Buie at buie@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4604.

Shelters open, farmers keep watch through cold night in Pasco 01/07/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 7, 2014 7:26pm]

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