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Manatee awakes to heavy frost and freezing temps

MANATEE — Area residents and farmers awoke this morning to find heavy frost after several hours of freezing temperatures.

With lighter winds expected this evening, frost could be even heavier early Thursday and another cold front will be moving into the area Friday, making for a cold weekend.

“There was some spot damage, but it wasn’t a catastrophic,” said Andrew Meadows of Florida Citrus Mutual. “We’re not out of the woods yet. It will be an anxious week for us.”

Barbara Carlton of Peace River Growers said Manatee County growers fared a little better than growers in Florida’s interior, where temperatures were even colder.

At Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, 32 degrees was the county’s official low and it lasted for two hours, said Rick Davis, a meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Service in Ruskin.

Mac Carraway, president of SMR Farms, said groves at Lakewood Ranch recorded a low of 26 and workers ran irrigation overnight to hold down damage.Carlton said growers are still assessing the condition of their groves.

“We expect some leaf burn because of the heavy frost. We have no reports in Manatee County of any fruit that has any ice or slush when it’s cut,” Carlton said.“We have to wait and see,” she said.

The cold snap also raises the fire threat. The cold weather freeze drys vegetation, allowing it to catch fire more readily and for fire to spread faster, said Gerry LaCavera, wildfire mitigation coordinator for the state of Florida.

“Hopefully folks will be careful with anything that causes sparks or a fire,” LaCavera said.

The Weather Service’s Davis temperatures will be similar tonight, but with lighter winds, there will be a lot more frost.Expect temperatures in the low 30s near the coast and upper 20s in the interior.

East Manatee nursery owner Ralph Garrison has been around local agriculture for a half-century, and he says it’s been that long since Manatee County has experienced temperatures this cold, this long.

Manatee and Sarasota counties are in the grip of a cold snap of unusual duration that has farmers on alert, homeowners scrambling to cover their plants and the Salvation Army Lodge in Bradenton packed with homeless.

“I think it could be a record to have 30-degree nights and 50-degree days for seven to 10 straight days,” Garrison, owner of Suncoast Nursery Inc. of East Manatee, said Tuesday. “The last time anything like this happened was in the 1950s.”

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday signed an executive order that gives the state’s Division of Emergency Management and other agencies the authority to provide growers with assistance. Throughout central and south Florida, farmers are trying to salvage millions of dollars worth of citrus and vegetable crops, spraying them in protective layers of ice and covering them in plastic.

“The problem now is that we have a weeklong freeze predicted,” said Ted Campbell, executive director for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. “It’s an endurance test.”

Although the area will get a break Thursday when the major front hauling frigid air from Canada since last week passes through, a secondary front is following close behind, and Friday and Saturday are slated to be just as cold as today, said Ernie Jillson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

Thursday’s warm-up will bring temperatures into the mid-40s for lows and mid-60s for highs, much closer to normal for this time of year, Jillson said.

Manatee and Sarasota are experiencing weather 20 degrees below normal because of these air masses, Jillson added.

The normal low temperature for early January in Manatee and Sarasota counties is 51 and the normal high temperature is 73.

“Our high temp is what our normal low temp would be,” Jillson said.

Farmers and homeowners with outside plants dodged a bullet Tuesday when the first air mass dragged some clouds and unexpected rain along with it, protecting tender vegetation.

That cloud cover is expected to be gone today, however.

“The nursery and citrus people are being quite watchful,” Garrison said, adding that he and his staff will spray his plants with water and turn on heaters if the temperatures drop 4 to 8 degrees today, below the 35-degree low from Tuesday. “The citrus people will run micro jets around the trunk of their citrus trees if it gets below freezing,” Garrison said.

Fortunately, the county is in between vegetable crops, with most of the all-important tomato crop already picked and a new tomato crop ready to go in.

Tomato farmers are waiting to lay plastic sheets on the rows of tiny, transplanted tomato plants as soon as the ground warms to 55, said tomato farmer Gary Reeder.

C&D Fruit and Vegetable on State Road 64 was on stand-by Tuesday morning at 4 and 5 a.m. ready to turn on sprinklers on their strawberries which are being picked as they ripen, but the temperature didn’t get much lower than 35, said Sam Marciano, a fruit and vegetable salesperson.

“Yes, we didn’t get hit, but tonight might be the one,” Marciano said, referring to around 5:30 a.m. today, when temps are expected to be the coldest so far this winter in East Manatee. “The cloud cover has been keeping the temperatures warm, but it may not be staying.”

Concerned residents have responded to the needs of the homeless, said Ed Wickman, men’s shelter manager at the Salvation Army, which admitted 135 homeless men Monday and expected at least the same Tuesday.

A couple pulled up to the Salvation Army lodge Tuesday and unloaded bags filled with new jackets for the homeless, Wickman said.

Their contribution was added to numerous large, black lawn bags filled with blankets and jackets that the Salvation Army has received since the cold front hit the area.

“The response on blankets and jackets has been tremendous,” Wickman said. “Our second need would be socks and gloves and wool hats.”

Richard Dymond, reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.

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