Hard freeze warning issued for area today

MANATEE -- A mass of frigid air was expected to chill most of west central and southwest Florida today, and weather forecasters issued a hard freeze warning for the early morning hours.

The National Weather Service’s warning was slated to go into effect from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. today, with a hard freeze watch slated to take effect from late tonight through Wednesday morning.

The weather service predicted inland temperatures in the low 30s.

East of Interstate 75, forecasters predicted as much as seven or eight hours of below-freezing temperatures, said Logan Johnson, a meteorologist who works in the Ruskin office of the National Weather Service.

“East of I-75, temperatures will fall as low as 25 degrees, near Myakka City and in eastern Manatee County,” Johnson said Monday. “It will have durations of three to four hours, perhaps, below 27 degrees, with the potential for agricultural damage tonight.”

Some inland areas may get readings in the upper teens, a weather service advisory said.

The cold, windy weather is related to a winter storm that wreaked havoc over the weekend along the East Coast, where cancellations of thousands of flights stranded travelers.

The storm was accompanied by bone-chilling cold air behind it coming out of Canada, Johnson said.

However, he predicted that in our area of Florida, a high pressure system will slide to the east to allow winds to become more southerly, which will bring warmer air back into the area toward the end of the week.

“By Thursday, you’ll notice changes,” Johnson said. “By Saturday, it should be in the mid-70s.”

Flight boards Monday at area airports were spotted with red warnings of cancellations and delays.

At midday, Tampa International Airport reported 57 cancelled flights -- 33 arrivals and 24 departures.

The cancellations mostly impacted flights in the Northeast, said Christine Osborn, airport spokeswoman.

“Whenever there’s this many cancellations, it can always affect travel even if the area you’re traveling to is not the area affected by bad weather,” she said. “Everyone should be double-checking their travel arrangements with the airlines.”

On Monday, Sarasota Bradenton International Airport reported five cancellations.

Farmers were bracing for the severe cold, but many of them have already lost their crops due to a freeze earlier this month, said Ralph Garrison, a member of the board of directors for the Manatee County Farm Bureau.

“We’ve already been hit, all the vegetables are gone, pretty much, in the county,” he said. “Production people have already closed down.”

Early cold ruined crops like beans, squash, cucumbers, peppers and corn, Garrison said, adding, “The vegetable farmers pretty much got shut down 10 days ago.”

Farmers like Garrison, who operate ornamental nurseries, are covering up their greenhouses in an effort to save their plants, he said.

If there’s an upside, it’s that the fall tomato crop has already been harvested, and farmers won’t be planting the next crop until sometime in January, Garrison said.

Another plus is that some crops do better in the cold than others, such as cabbage, collard greens and broccoli, which tend to be cold-resistant.

He noted, however, that a hard freeze will hurt citrus trees.

Along with warnings about the cold, the weather service also issued a high surf advisory predicting a moderate risk of dangerous rip currents through 7 p.m. Monday.

A kite surfer had to jettison his kite in high winds Monday morning, north of the Gulf Drive Cafe at 900 Gulf Drive N., but he did not need rescue, and came ashore on his own power, said Jay Moyles, chief of marine rescue.

Still, Moyles cautioned beachgoers and boaters to observe marine warnings and small craft advisories.

“You have to be careful: Wind with water and cold air temperatures can be dangerous,” he said.

-- Grace Gagliano contributed to this report.