TAMPA — The cold snap that settled over West Central Florida on Monday offered a chilling glimpse of what the northern half of the country is going through, though it’s nothing like Chicago, where it was 15 below zero in the middle of the afternoon.
There, winter lasts for months. Here, it’s measured in hours – or at least it is this week, when this morning’s near-freezing temperatures will climb to the 80s by the end of the week.
Still, the danger of having temps drop to the mid- to low 30s — even if just a couple of hours — is sending shivers through farmers, travelers and the homeless.
The lows Tuesday morning will be the coldest this winter, which has been relatively mild so far. The wind chill this morning will be in the mid-20s or lower.
The National Weather Service in Ruskin on Monday issued a wide variety of harsh weather advisories and warnings.
There was a freeze warning and wind chill advisory for counties east of the coast, including Hillsborough, Polk, and parts of Pasco and Manatee counties. A hard freeze warning was issued for Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties. Winds will come from the north at a steady 10 to 15 mph, with gusts of up to 30 mph, making wind chill a factor.
Farther inland, plump and red strawberries adorn plants all over Dover and Plant City, clinging to fragile stems that are particularly susceptible to the cold.
Actually, said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Grower’s Association, it’s the bloom that is most intolerant of the cold and there are as many blooms as strawberries on the plants right now. The blooms turn into strawberries that are ready for picking in about three weeks.
“The blooms are the tenderest point,” he said, “and they’re all exposed, right on top of the plant, facing up. The bloom is the piece of the equation that we have to make sure is taken care of.”
He said growers likely won’t get much sleep early this week. For the most part, growers are ready, but are not particularly concerned about this cold snap as long as the temperatures don’t dip below 28 degrees.
“This is not unusual for January,” Campbell said. “I don’t expect any large losses. We just have to make sure the blooms are protected.”
Carl Grooms, owner of Fancy Farms, said he might get a couple hours sleep Monday night, but probably not.
“If it gets down below 30 degrees and the wind is blowing, that’s a serious situation,” said Grooms. Temperatures in the low 30s makes it difficult to decide whether to pump warm groundwater onto the crops to protect them from the freeze, he said. Lower than that, the pumps come on for sure. Temperatures in the low 30s don’t always require such precautions, he said.
“We’ll look at it at sundown, and maybe lay down until midnight,” he said, before getting up and standing watch by the thermometer the rest of the night.
He said pickers were busy Monday gathering berries to get as many off the plants as possible before the temperature drops.
How cold it gets depends on where you are, he said, and a few degrees can mean the difference between great crops and a bust.
“I’ve seen it where a mile down the road there’s a 3-degree difference,” he said.
Bad weather elsewhere still is causing problems at Tampa International Airport, where 155 arriving and departing flights were delayed Monday and nearly 50 flights had been cancelled.
Emergency operations centers across the region Monday announced the opening of emergency shelters, including ones in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, for homeless families and individuals. Those shelters likely will be open Tuesday night as well, as lows on Wednesday morning should be in the mid-30s.
Forecasters say the chilly temperatures will give way to some warmth, though not right away. After Wednesday, the mercury will rise steadily through the rest of the week. By the weekend, highs in the Tampa area are expected to reach the low 80s.
But early this week, it will be very cold. The wind-chill factor this morning and tomorrow morning will make it feel like the upper teens to the mid-20s, said weather service meteorologist Robert Garcia.
The cold is part of a front that is sweeping over Florida and carrying a “good blast of arctic air” behind it, he said.
“A high pressure system over Texas and Oklahoma is serving as a great way to bring more air down tonight,” he said Monday afternoon. “It’s a direct highway down Interstate 75 from Canada to Florida.”
Usually, such temperature drops come a little later in the month or in February, he said, “but any time in January or February is fair game for freezes.”