Cold front holds Tampa Bay area in icy grip

A thermometer sheathed in ice reads just under 30 degrees at George and Joan Casey’s blueberry farm in Brooksville Thursday morning. The Caseys spent all night sleeping in two-hour shifts between making the rounds in their fields to check temperatures and sprinklers. Temperatures in Brooksville were as low as 22 degrees about 1:30 a.m. on the Caseys’ farm.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

A thermometer sheathed in ice reads just under 30 degrees at George and Joan Casey’s blueberry farm in Brooksville Thursday morning. The Caseys spent all night sleeping in two-hour shifts between making the rounds in their fields to check temperatures and sprinklers. Temperatures in Brooksville were as low as 22 degrees about 1:30 a.m. on the Caseys’ farm.

A freezing front and brisk winds swept over the Tampa Bay area last night, bringing the lowest temperatures in more than a decade and raising concerns among farmers.

The cold filled Pinellas homeless shelters, prompting officials to issue an urgent plea for help to replenish dwindling supplies.

The cold is expected to continue tonight. Much of the bay area — save Pinellas County — will be under another freeze warning again tonight.

"It's going to be slightly warmer, but not by much," said Richard Rude, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service.

Hernando and Pasco counties will see temperatures in the 30s near the coast and upper teens inland tonight. In Hillsborough, it will be in the lower 30s near the gulf and in the mid 20s inland.

"Pinellas won't freeze tonight," Rude said.

Still, Pinellas will keep its six emergency homeless shelters open another night because St. Petersburg is expected to dip to 40 degrees. The shelters filled up quickly Wednesday night, well beyond the 450-person capacity.

"Last night, both overflow shelters were overflowing," said Michael Amidei, a county shelter coordinator. "That's kind of unique."

Shelter supplies already are depleted, and officials issued an urgent call for help, the second time in recent weeks. They need money, food, coffee, paper products and disposable tableware. Donations are being accepted at Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, 5180 62nd Ave. N.

Hillsborough will also open its freeze shelters again.

This morning's temperatures felt like the 20s because of the wind, with areas around Brooksville and Lecanto coming close to 19 degrees. Highs will reach the upper 40s to mid 50s through today, with lots of sunshine and a slight breeze.

Early-morning temperatures today were the lowest for this date since 1998, according to Bay News 9 meteorologist Juli Marquez. No records were broken, though; in 1996, temperatures were nearly 10 degrees lower. Still, today's forecast high of 53 matches the day's usual low.

Sheri Brothers, who runs a 30-acre blueberry farm outside Ocala, said she and her husband, Randy, started running sprinklers about 6 p.m. Wednesday to create a protective coating for her crop.

"The water's still running," she said this morning. "We've got fields of ice."

George Casey, a Brooksville blueberry farmer, said a cold snap two weeks ago created a bigger freezing problem than last night, which dipped to about 22 degrees. Neither Brothers nor Casey could give estimates of possible damage but suggested it would be minimal.

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, said most assessments haven't taken place yet, but that Mother Nature has been kind so far.

"It was certainly no worse than it was two weeks ago," he said. "We're very optimistic that this is going to be minimal."

The area's tropical fish farmers may not be as lucky. Fran Drawdy with Imperial Tropicals in Lakeland said the freezing weather in January killed about 30 percent of the farm's fish.

"It was hard a couple weeks ago because it was colder," Drawdy said. "But now the fish are in a weakened condition. That's our concern, as to how they're going to hold up through this."

Warm water is being pumped into the farm's 400 covered ponds all day, she said. Farmers won't be able to assess damage for a few hours.

"I wish it didn't last until tomorrow," she said. "That's not a good thing."

Art Rawlins, who runs a 27-acre tropical fish farm south of Plant City, said he lost about 10 percent of his inventory in January. It's too early to check for "floaters," he said, but added that the repeated freezes have taken their toll on his fish.

"Stress really does a number on them. … Some fish are more tolerant than others, but some are extremely sensitive," Rawlins said. "55 is really critical. 50s, they're dead.

"I don't know about this go-around. We'll just have to wait a couple days to see," he said.

Cold weather tips

• Going to be outdoors for an extended period? The National Weather Service recommends that you wear extra layers of clothing.

• Using space heaters? Keep linens, blankets, curtains and other flammable materials away from them.

• Have pets? Animal experts advise people to bring in their pets. "These are extreme circumstances," said Marti Ryan, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Animal Services. "It's not illegal to leave your dog outside, but we still have community standards."

• Make sure doghouses are insulated with fabric, towels or blankets. "It has to have a strong foundation … and it must have material inside to regulate," Ryan said.

• Local nurseries advise people to use fabric rather than plastic to cover plants. "If you cover them with plastic … it'll lose the insulation," said Scott Geisler, a worker at Willow Tree Nursery in St. Petersburg. Old sheets, blankets and even cardboard boxes will work fine, he said.

• Spraying plants with water to create a layer of ice, as is done with strawberries, is more harmful than helpful, Geisler said. Watering the grass, however, could actually help the ground stay warmer through the night. "If the ground is dry it's full of air, and it cools off faster," Geisler said.

Emergency homeless shelters

Pinellas County

Adult men and women:

• First United Methodist Church of Tarpon Springs, 501 E Tarpon Ave.

• Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church, 110 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater

• Northside Baptist Church, 6000 38th Ave. N, St. Petersburg

• Northwest Presbyterian Church, 6330 54th Ave. N, St. Petersburg

• Salvation Army, 1400 Fourth St. S, St. Petersburg

Family cold night shelters:

• Northwest Presbyterian Church, 6330 54th Ave. N, St. Petersburg

• Northside Baptist Church, 6000 38th Ave. N, St. Petersburg

Backup shelters:

• St. Cecelia Catholic Church, 820 Jasmine Way, Clearwater

Hillsborough County

• Salvation Army (adults), 1514 N. Florida Ave., Tampa

• Metropolitan Ministries (families), 2010 N. Florida Ave., Tampa

• Good Samaritan Mission at Bethune Park, 5809 Edina St., Wimauma

Cold front holds Tampa Bay area in icy grip 02/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 8:02am]

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