Florida Braces For Freeze

(AP) All of Florida, from Miami to the Panhandle, was under a freeze warning Wednesday as 2008 started with a quick-moving cold snap expected to damage citrus and other crops, as temperatures should drop into the 20s and teens in parts of the state.

The freeze has already hurt cold-weather crops like potatoes and cabbage in north Florida, and there is concern that low temperatures and high winds could rake as far south as Lake Okeechobee. Temperatures early Wednesday fell as low as 30 degrees in northern Florida, but forecasters said it would get colder Thursday.

Florida's citrus industry is especially vulnerable. Harvests are already at historic lows because of hurricanes, drought, disappearing acreage and diseases that kill trees and damage fruit.

Much of the state's prime citrus growing areas were expected to get temperatures in the 20s, so Gov. Charlie Crist signed an emergency order and relaxed restrictions in getting harvests moved to processing centers.

"Everybody's scurrying around to do what they can to protect their plants," said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Citrus grower Ben Norris said he was monitoring weather reports to decide if they need to run water over the fruit, which forms an insulating layer of ice on the peel. If temperatures drop to 28 degrees for four hours or more, ice can form inside the fruit, likely damaging it, he said.

"I don't feel like this is going to be catastrophic," said Norris, who oversees about 300,000 boxes of fruit a year in DeSoto and Hardee counties.

Vegetables could face the biggest threat if the freezing weather moves into Palm Beach County and other areas of South Florida where those crops are grown. Farmers are trying to harvest as much of their crops as they can or cover them before tonight to minimize the damage.

In Plant City near Tampa, strawberry grower Carl Grooms spent Wednesday morning searching for ripe berries to pluck before they could be damaged. With strong wind and temperatures forecast in the mid-20s, Grooms feared considerable loss.

For plants ranging from strawberries to ferns, growers use the same technique each time this happens: icing plants by spraying them with water to insulate them at 32 degrees.


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