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First chill of the season barges in

An arctic wind blew into the Tampa Bay area Tuesday afternoon and dropped overnight temperatures near record lows, but balmy weather could return as early as Thursday afternoon.

A surge of cold, dry air reinforced a cold front that arrived over the weekend. Citrus and Hernando were the worst hit with temperatures in the high 20s forecast for tonight. Parts of eastern Pasco and Hillsborough counties will approach freezing.

"Winter is just knocking on our door," said Anthony Reynas, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

It should warm up into the high 50s and low 60s this afternoon in Pinellas and Hillsborough, then drop back into the high 30s and low 40s in many spots tonight.

"It's time to put away the flip-flops, at least through the weekend," said National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Barron.

Barron's advice: along with socks, opt for layers of long-sleeved garments and a coat. Bring houseplants inside, and cover plants in the ground. Pets should be brought indoors.

"Forty degrees in St. Petersburg is going to be pretty cold for any animal out there," Barron said.

Pinellas County had no plans for weather-related warnings because the area was expected to duck freezing weather, but Hills­borough County opened three shelters.

"When we believe the temperature could get below 32 degrees, we get very concerned about those who are out and don't have protective shelter," said Hillsborough County spokeswoman Lori Hudson.

In eastern Hillsborough County, farmers with tender crops will be on watch all night long, checking equipment and monitoring alarm-rigged thermometers that warn when the temperature dips to 35, one strawberry grower said.

"There's no strawberries to speak of, but the flowers and the buds are very vulnerable, they are very tender," said Jim Meeks, whose family farms 200 acres of the winter crop.

And at this time of year, the blossoms are too valuable to lose.

Florida provides some of the earliest berries of the season, and they bring a premium price because of the lack of competition from northern states. A freeze now could potentially be more harmful than in January or February, said Wishnatzki Farm's president Gary Wishnatzki.

In Plant City, Carl Grooms of Fancy Farms said he planned to nap early Tuesday evening and spend the night monitoring his fields.

"It's an iffy situation," he said. "You just got to watch the wind, the clouds and the thermometer to see what happens."

Gary Parke of Plant City's Parkesdale Farms said he planned to turn on the overhead irrigation if temperatures neared freezing. The irrigation creates a protective layer of water over the plants.

Other growers are tending to tomatoes, yellow squash, zucchini, peppers, eggplant and cucumbers, all tender vegetables susceptible to extreme weather.

Meanwhile, tropical fish farmers kept their outdoor ponds covered. Many fisheries covered their ponds several weeks ago to keep temperatures up even as the weather cooled, so they should be fine, said Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association director David Boozer.

Valley Fisheries in Wimauma is not concerned, said assistant manager Todd Klukey. It covered its ponds about three weeks ago.

"The fish are hardy enough," he said.

On the water, the cold front will bring rough seas, and a small-craft advisory is in effect through Thursday.

The Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa on St. Pete Beach was expecting its usual chorus of complaints from northerners who expected warm weather.

Concierge Bridgett Hendrickson said she will send people to downtown St. Petersburg's museums but expects the tourists to fare better than the natives.

"Most of our clients that come here are from cooler weather. The know what to do," she said. "We Floridians freak out."

Stephanie Garry contributed to this report.

First chill of the season barges in 11/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 11:15pm]

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