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Tampa Bay region prepares for record cold

Frigid arctic air that drove temperatures below zero in nearly half the country also threatened to bring record lows to the Tampa Bay region, putting farmers on alert and opening cold-weather shelters.

A hard freeze, with temperatures at 28 degrees for two or more hours, was expected this morning in areas immediately north of Tampa Bay, including parts of Hernando and Citrus counties.

Freezing temperatures were also likely in Pasco and parts of Hillsborough counties, with slightly warmer temperatures in Pinellas and coastal areas.

"This air mass is so cold that we will have windchill factors in the low 20s across the region,'' Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker said.

The high today will probably be in the high 40s, likely a record for lowest daytime temperature, and wind gusts of 15 mph or higher will make it seem much colder.

Lows tonight will plummet again into the 30s and 20s.

"It's possible it could be just as cold Wednesday morning,'' Linker said.

It's worse elsewhere.

Wind-chill dropped the "feels-like'' temperature to -50 degrees in parts of Minnesota and temperatures of zero or below were recorded in about half the states.

The cold, coming on the heels of snow in parts of the Midwest and Northeast, led to numerous flight cancellations or delays. At Tampa International Airport, 48 flights were canceled and 155 were delayed as of mid-afternoon Monday.

Meanwhile, farmers in the Tampa Bay region were preparing for the worst.

At JG Ranch, south of Brooksville, owner George Casey said temperatures are a concern, but not the only concern.

High winds will make it difficult to coat his 14 acres of mostly strawberries with a protective layer of ice. He said he needs the water droplets to land on the plants – not in the neighbor's cow pasture.

"We can control the temperature; we can't control the wind," he said. "It will be a very worrisome issue."

Greg Gude, manager of Kumquat Growers Inc., near Dade City, spent Monday making sure his irrigation system was in order. The forecasted freeze comes less than three weeks before the annual Kumquat Festival, Dade City's signature event that draws tens of thousands to the area.

"We worry and pray a lot," Gude said. "We hope it won't get that cold."

Preventative measures such as spraying and early harvesting will be common, but a couple of days of freezing weather should not mean massive crop loss, said Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

"Hopefully we'll emerge unscathed," Lochridge said.

The cold air, accompanied by high winds, prompted officials to open more than a dozen cold-weather shelters in Pinellas, Citrus, Pasco, Hernando and Hillsborough counties. Some shelters offered transportation to or from those locations.

Along with warm beds, most shelters offered a hot dinner and breakfast.

Local government officials advised residents to cover plants and bring pets indoors.

Duke Energy and TECO spokespeople said the companies had adequate capacity to meet high power demands.

Staff writers Danny Valentine, Keeley Sheehan and Lisa Buie contributed to this report. Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727)-893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.

Tampa Bay region prepares for record cold 01/06/14 [Last modified: Saturday, January 11, 2014 5:29pm]

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