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As cold subsides, farmers start to assess crop losses

Today the sun will shine, and your bones should feel warm again. But farmers who have struggled through this week's cold snap will be checking to see how many oranges, strawberries and tropical fish they lost.

"I'm concerned," said Art Rawlins, who has about 20 acres of tropical fish ponds near Plant City. "I'm sure there's going to be some loss. But I don't know yet and I won't know for anywhere from two to 10 days."

Agriculture officials say there will undoubtedly be crop losses, though how severe is still unclear.

"There's certainly some damage. I don't think there's any question of that," said Florida Strawberry Growers Association executive director Ted Campbell. "Three nights in a row is going to be hard."

But a warmup is under way.

After several nights in the 20s or 30s this week, temperatures today could climb to the high 60s. Tonight the mercury will dip to the 40s or 50s in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, but could plunge nearly to freezing again in Hernando.

Saturday and Sunday will be warmer, with highs in the 70s.

The warming trend is especially welcome news for homeless people in Pinellas County. The public cold-night shelters were not open Thursday night because temperatures were not expected to drop near freezing.

The other reason, according to cold-night shelter coordinator Michael Amidei, is that volunteers couldn't keep the shelters open if they wanted to.

"Our resources are just shot," Amidei said. "I didn't want to open shelters unless they were completely resourced properly."

Amidei estimated that Pinellas County had sheltered more than 1,000 people combined in the previous three nights.

He said the system isn't designed to handle a fourth night. The county's cold-shelter program receives no county funding, according to Amidei, and depends only on volunteers and donations.

Amidei said the program is short on sandwiches, blankets and volunteers, and needs to replenish itself for the next cold snap, expected next week.

Amidei said his experience sheltering people for more than a decade has taught him that it shouldn't be done without adequate food or staffing. Then security becomes an issue, he said.

"We have flareups, we have shouting matches," Amidei said. "But in a shelter environment, these behaviors get multiplied because everyone is a part of it in the room."

At least two shelters did stay open using their own resources: Northwest Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg and First United Methodist Church in Tarpon Springs.

While the homeless won't have to contend with freezing temperatures for a few nights, farmers will be worrying about damage.

For farmers, it takes time to assess the damage to crops. Sometimes citrus plants revive a couple of days after a frost, and other times they look fine but start to wilt and die a few days later, said Terence McElroy of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The crops at risk include strawberries, blueberries, snap beans, celery, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, radishes and squash.

"We're still assessing what happened, how much fruit damage there's going to be," said Andrew Meadows of Florida Citrus Mutual, an association of growers.

As cold subsides, farmers start to assess crop losses 01/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 12:29am]
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