Another cold blast hits Tampa Bay before warmup

As farmers go on high freeze alert, homeless shelters open overnight.
Teresa Jimenez-Arena picks strawberries at Fancy Farms in Plant City on Saturday. Growers packed up berries in advance of the cold. EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times
Teresa Jimenez-Arena picks strawberries at Fancy Farms in Plant City on Saturday. Growers packed up berries in advance of the cold.EVE EDELHEIT | Times
Published February 17 2013
Updated February 18 2013

A cold snap expected to send temperatures dipping into the 20s this morning across parts of Tampa Bay made for a long, anxious night for berry farmers.

"Believe me, nobody will be going to sleep tonight," farm manager Matt Parke of Parkesdale Farms in Dover said Sunday.

The weekend cold spell intensified Sunday night, hitting inland areas hardest. Overnight temperatures there were forecast to drop into the mid and low 20s, where only a day earlier they hovered around the low 30s.

The National Weather Service late Sunday issued freeze warnings for Pasco, Hillsborough, Polk and Manatee counties. Citrus and Hernando counties were under a hard-freeze warning, meaning temperatures were expected to be below 27 degrees for at least two hours.

All of this meant for a long and worrisome evening Sunday, with strawberry farmers from west Pasco to Plant City and northern Manatee anxiously checking thermometers in their fields to weigh whether to run water to coat their plants with a protective layer of ice.

Parke said he ran water just before sunrise Sunday but was expecting temperatures to drop even further and to begin their descent not long after nightfall.

To be on the safe side, he was planning to dispatch crews to fields after sundown Sunday to monitor temperatures.

Even if farmers can get to the water taps in time to stave off the cold's worst effects, that's no guarantee they'll make it through the night. There's always the possibility a pipe will burst or a clog develop, inhibiting their ability to shield the berries.

It doesn't take long, Parke said, for a hard frost to ruin a crop, which is why farmers were expecting a long vigil. "A lot is on the line," he said. "We're trying to protect our livelihood."

The cold isn't all bad news, though. J.R. Pierce, a sales representative for Astin Strawberry Exchange in Plant City, said a cold spell can be beneficial — provided it doesn't drag out more than a day or two and farmers are able to apply an igloo-like protective coating to the berries.

"In the next few days, it should actually help quality," Pierce said Sunday morning. "Cold weather tends to make berries a little bigger, a little sweeter" by boosting sugar content and slowing the ripening process.

The weekend cold front that swooped in from the north had officials in St. Petersburg and Tampa scrambling to open shelters for homeless people on Saturday and Sunday night. High winds Saturday night forced law enforcement to close the Sunshine Skyway bridge to semitrailers and commercial trucks.

Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure said temperatures will begin to warm after a cold morning.

A high of 67 is expected this afternoon, and he predicted lows this week in the 50s and highs in the 70s and 80s for much of the area after Tuesday.

The cold spell comes after a warm January. The National Weather Service said the month was the bay area's seventh warmest since the agency started keeping records in 1890. The average temperature was 67.4 degrees. Usually, it's closer to 60 degrees.

The heat wave hit its apex Jan. 9, with the mercury reaching 85 at Tampa International Airport. It was a record for that day.

Meteorologists attributed the warmth to a high pressure system that parked over Tampa Bay, blocking cold fronts.

Sunday's overnight cold was due to a drop in pressure that allowed a northern cold front to swoop in. Declining wind speeds also sent temperatures plunging. Though it feels colder, windy conditions can stir up the atmosphere and forestall temperature declines. Proximity to water — the bays, inlets and Gulf of Mexico — also contributes to temperature variation.

McClure predicted Plant City to hit a low of 28. Temperatures were anticipated in the mid 20s in Brandon and Wesley Chapel and in the low 20s in Dade City and Brooksville.

Parts of Tampa were expected to dip to the mid 30s, with colder temperatures north and east of downtown. Pinellas County, a mixed bag, was expected to see temperatures in the mid 30s to low 40s.

Times staff writers Keyonna Summers and Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.