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Emergency declared as bay area endures more relentless cold

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Tuesday evening as farmers fretted about possible crop damage from cold and freezing temperatures that are expected to last all week and weekend.

The persistent cold that has settled over the Tampa Bay area also is posing a major threat to hundreds of thousands of tropical fish raised in Hillsborough County. Farmers fear they could lose half of their fish.

Though the cold isn't expected to break records, farmers said they haven't seen a cold snap last this long in decades. The weather also was blamed for two nights of power outages in St. Petersburg in which thousands of people were without power for an hour or more.

Around the bay area, restaurants with outside seating reported fewer patrons and retailers reported a surge in space heater sales. Cold weather shelters for the homeless also opened their doors.

Early this afternoon, about 70 teen boys will dive into the frigid Spring Bayou waters in Tarpon Springs as part of the 104th Epiphany celebration. The expected temperature when the white cross is tossed: about 45.

And the worst may be yet to come.

After a brief warmup Thursday, another cold front is expected to pummel the state through the weekend.

"It's going to be at least as cold as this one," said Logan Johnson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

Crist's order, which lasts until Sunday, is to ensure precautions are taken to protect crops.

Carl Groomes, 60, owner of Fancy Farms in Plant City, said this is the longest cold streak in his 36 years in the strawberry growing business.

Temperatures dropped below 30 degrees before 8 p.m. Tuesday at one of his farms, so he was expecting to have to run his sprinklers for 13 hours. The longest run prior to that was Monday night, when he had to turn them on for seven hours, he said.

"I've never seen one this long," he said. "This is going on the fourth day and the forecasters say the worst of it isn't until this weekend. So we are very concerned."

Kumquat grower Frank Gude said the cold probably will equate to a loss for his farm just north of San Antonio in Pasco County.

Gude has been in business since 1979, and he said he hasn't seen weather like this since the hard freezes of the 1980s, where temperatures dropped into the teens just before Christmas and cold winds from the north battered his crops.

This week's weather is much milder than that, he said, but he still expects some damage.

"The rest of this week sure don't sound too good," said Gude.

The bay area has been 20 degrees colder than average this week, with highs climbing only into the 50s.

The cold has been a two-way street for business. At the Chattaway restaurant south of downtown St. Petersburg, which has predominately outside seating, the normal 500 to 600 daily patrons has been reduced to 45. Conversely, Ace Hardware on 34th Street in St. Petersburg had sold out of space heaters.

Residents also are cranking up the furnace. Progress Energy saw a 50 percent increase in usage on Sunday alone.

More than 3,000 Progress Energy customers lost power at about 9 p.m. Tuesday in northeast St. Petersburg. A company spokesman said a surge of use caused an already-weakened piece of equipment to fail. Most customers had their power restored within a few hours. A Monday night outage in which 3,000 customers lost power also was blamed on the weather.

As if that's not bad enough, forecasters said the western Panhandle has a 50 percent chance for sleet and snow Thursday, when a cold front also could spew rain onto the Tampa Bay area.

The cold has been tough on fish farmers in Hillsborough, where 85 percent of the state's tropical fish are raised.

Art Rawlins of Rawlins Tropical farm in Lithia has spent his days this week pumping warm well water to the surfaces of his hundreds of ponds.

On Tuesday, the water in Rawlins' pond was about 61 degrees. A few fish already had died. He said the fish would be in trouble at 58 or 59 degrees, especially delicate angel fish. At 55 degrees, the game is basically over.

>>Fast facts

Cold weather tips

Florida emergency management officials are urging residents and visitors throughout Florida to prepare for temperatures near or below freezing this week. For areas under a freeze or hard-freeze warning, they issue the following tips:

• Stay indoors and use safe heating sources.

• Be aware of the fire danger from space heaters and candles. Keep such devices away from all flammable materials such as curtains and furniture, and install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Never use a charcoal grill inside.

• Wear multiple layers of loose-fitting clothing.

• Drink nonalcoholic fluids.

• Shelter pets or bring them inside.

Fast facts

Pinellas County shelter information

Shelters for adults

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

Pinellas Park: Boys & Girls Club of the Suncoast, 7790 61st St. N.

St. Petersburg: Salvation Army, 1400 Fourth St. S; the Turning Point, 1801 Fifth Ave. N.

Tarpon Springs: St. Timothy's Lutheran Church, 812 E Tarpon Ave.

Shelters open to families with children

Clearwater: First United Methodist Church of Clearwater, 411 Turner St.; Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church (backup shelter), 110 S Fort Harrison Ave.

St. Petersburg: American Church of the Beatitudes, 2812 Eighth St. N; Northside Baptist Church, 6000 38th Ave. N; Northwest Presbyterian Church, 6330 54th Ave. N.

Emergency declared as bay area endures more relentless cold 01/05/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 12:12am]
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