January's freeze will persist at least into weekend

TAMPA — Don't let today's brief warmup fool you.

Highs this afternoon could reach 60 degrees, but forecasters caution it is likely only a hiccup in this week's prolonged cold snap.

An arctic freeze is poised to settle over the state once again on Friday, bringing even colder days and nights through the weekend.

"Keep bundling up," said National Weather Service meteorologist Anthony Reynes. "Keep taking precautions to make sure you stay warm."

Another freeze warning remains in effect until 9 a.m. today for most of the bay area, excluding Pinellas County.

Record low temperatures in Tampa early Wednesday left farmers fretting over crops. There were reports of scattered damage, but it could be weeks before growers know the full effect of the freeze that will continue for at least a few more nights.

Grocery stores are already predicting future price hikes on berries.

Tampa bottomed out at 27 degrees Wednesday morning, smashing the previous low temperature for the same date. That was 30 degrees in 1999, according to the National Weather Service.

To the north, temperatures plunged as low as 22 in Hernando County.

Overnight temperatures that dipped well below freezing likely damaged strawberries — even some that were being irrigated.

Grower George Casey, whose crops are southwest of Brooksville, said it looks like some of the fruit under the sprinklers will be mushy, one sign of damage.

"I think it will be Tuesday or Wednesday (of next week) before we know," he said.

The coolers at Gulf Coast Produce are usually packed with strawberries this time of year. There's often a dozen trucks in the parking lot, and forklifts buzz around the Plant City warehouse.

But cold temperatures aren't allowing strawberries across the Tampa Bay area to ripen, and because they don't ripen after they're picked, farmers are leaving them on the plants. The result?

"It's deader than a doornail," said Brandon Farms owner Joey Gude, who is part-owner of Gulf Coast Produce.

Carl Groomes, owner of the Plant City strawberry-producing Fancy Farms, said the temperature at his farm early Wednesday was 26 degrees.

Groomes and his employees have kept vigil and a layer of ice over the berries all week. He said the damage as of Wednesday was minor.

"We do our best and leave all the rest to the man upstairs," Groomes said.

Local supermarkets are feeling the pinch. Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said there will be fewer strawberries for the next week or two. The company will honor the price in its weekly flier — 16-ounce clamshells of strawberries for $1.97 through Wednesday — she said, but prices could change in a week.

At Sweetbay Supermarket, a 16-ounce package is $2.49, and those prices will continue through next week, said spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau. But after that, prices will most likely rise.

"Supply and demand," she said.

At Beasley Farm, a commercial vegetable enterprise east of Brooksville, Joann Beasley came in from the fields early Wednesday, saying, "So far, I'm okay."

Swiss chard, spinach, radishes and other greens that thrive in cold weather survived.

"If it gets down into the teens, I'll be really worried," she said.

Blueberry growers did a bit better, with most of the berries still tight in their buds, said Ruth Davis of the Spring Lake Blueberry Farm on Powell Road, south of Brooksville.

The damage to citrus also hasn't been catastrophic, officials said, but the cold to come could be costly.

"There's still a lot of anxiety with the front coming through Friday," said Andrew Meadows, spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual.

At the Rawlins Tropical fish farm in Lithia, owner Art Rawlins called the weather situation critical.

"I expect a disaster before the week's out," Rawlins said.

The temperature in one of his ponds was 54 degrees Wednesday morning. The fish inside, accustomed to water near 72 degrees, were very lethargic, Rawlins said.

It will be a while before he can start counting fatalities. Dead fish don't float when the water's so cold, he said.

While today will be warmer, forecasters say Friday morning could start with a few showers and colder temperatures.

And the chances of snow?

Unlikely, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker, though there could be a few flakes in the air Saturday.

"A lot of things have to come in line perfectly for that to happen," he said.

Times correspondent Beth N. Gray and Times staff writer Stephanie Hayes contributed to this report.

How to protect your plants

When frost is predicted, you'll want to cover plants that are susceptible to cold. Use sheets, blankets, newspapers or other insulating materials. For quick coverage, pop large cardboard boxes over the plants.

The covering material should be sealed to the ground, which creates a bubble of space that is 3 to 4 degrees warmer than the outside air. Use rocks or bricks at the base of sheets to hold them tight.

• Apply the cover in late afternoon, before the temperature drops.

• You can cover plants with plastic, but try to keep the plastic from touching the foliage (the plastic works as a conductor for the cold). Remove the plastic when the temperature rises above freezing so as not to cook the plants underneath.

• Strands of Christmas lights or other electric lights under the cover can raise the temperature a degree or two. Be careful the bulb does not touch coverings or leaves.

• Plants do better if they go into a cold snap well watered, though not with wet leaves.

• Plants that may require protection are copperleaf, banana, papaya, poinsettia, hibiscus, ixora, schefflera, carissa, philodendron, croton, bougainvillea, allamanda, sea grape, tropical fruit trees and other tropical and semitropical plants.

• Experts say to wait to prune woody plants until after the danger of frost has passed closer to spring. For nonwoody plants, remove frozen and mushy portions immediately.

January's freeze will persist at least into weekend 01/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 11:19pm]

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