Inuit-inspired techniques for strawberries, smooth-sailing SOP for utilities and Plant City’s first cold weather shelter marked the local response to a recent cold snap through Florida.
Much like a Bruce Brown surf documentary, January in Florida usually conjures images of an endless summer with highs averaging in the 70s and lows rarely dipping below 50.
Last week, however, Plant City received an unusual blast of cold weather with temperatures dipping as far as 20 degrees below the average, including a few overnight freezes.
City services and the infamous fields that led to Plant City’s nickname as “winter strawberry capital of the world” stood at the ready for the frigid week, with little-to-no disturbance in normal operation.
“Fortunately, the freeze didn’t hurt us,” Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association said. “The freeze methods employed worked.”
Borrowing insulation techniques of the Arctic, Parker said many local farmers employed overhead irrigation to ice strawberry plants in.
“It doesn’t freeze them,” he said. “It’s similar to an igloo. As the water continues to run, it gives off heat and maintains everything under the ice above freezing.”
Parker said the cold slowed some production, but no crop loss was reported. The brief cold snap could also mean a sweeter season for farmers, he said.
“The fruit quality is sensational,” Parker said. “In the long term, it’s beneficial. The strawberries like cooler temperature…in the long term it will help because it will increase the quality of the fruit.”
On the city-run side, the utilities department said no issues were reported. Utilities Director Lynn Spivey said standard operating procedures were employed, like open spigots to create a drip that prevents flow meters, back flow meters, level gauges and analyzers from freezing.
“Typically that’s all we have to worry about in Florida,” Spivey said, “lines freezing.”
While the cold reached freezing above ground, the cold wasn’t sustained enough to bring the subterranean temperatures below freezing, so city lines were safe, she said. Residents should keep in mind, she added, that the city’s responsibilities stop at the service line and they should allow taps to drip when the temperature drops to prevent home pipes from freezing.
Last week’s cold streak also saw Plant City open its first cold-weather shelter to house the homeless and anyone with inadequate heat. From Monday through Sunday, New Hope @ Cornerstone’s Hands of Hope outreach center at 310 N. Collins St. served as a refuge from the cold for the city’s transient and needy populations.
Outreach Director Jennifer Anderson said it’s the first time Plant City has offered such a shelter and the first time the shelter was able to open when temperatures hit 40 degrees. Previously, shelters would only open once the temperature hit freezing.
“I was very impressed by what our city did and the way they just jumped right in there and helped,” Anderson said. “Sometimes I get a little aggravated when it comes to people helping the homeless and needy, but they really stepped up. I was just so amazed. The donations are still coming in.”
Anderson said opening as a shelter brought more attention to the outreach program, with new volunteers signing up to help out and cold-weather supplies coming in, giving those who can’t make it back to the shelter or choose not to stay there an alternate option for warmth.
“It’s wonderful that the homeless population throughout Hillsborough County can find shelter now,” she said. “Plant City really stepped up. I was so proud of my hometown and my church.”
The sun has come out again this week, with temperatures climbing bak to the normal 70-80 Florida winter range. The National Weather Service predicts an average, if not slightly warmer remainder to the winter season, but “that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t get additional cold snaps like we just had,” forecaster Andrew McKaughan said. “We’ll just have to see how it plays out over the next few months.”