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Freezing temps threaten FL farmers

Cold weather threatens farm worker income while many residents flock to shelters


"When there is crop damage in Florida's fields, many farm workers lose work and as most farm workers exist below the poverty line, any loss of income can be devastating"

—James Brown, Farmworkers Self Help

A frigid and exceptionally dry air mass that funneled into Florida behind an arctic cold front caused officials to issue a hard freeze warning for the northern two-thirds of the state. Forecasters say a combination of winds and below freezing temperatures will produce wind chills in the teens as far south as Lake Okeechobee.

Power outages were sporadic, but hundreds across the state were left without electricity as utilities tried to keep up with demand.  For Floridians who are generally unprepared for extremely cold temperatures, the loss of power was exceptionally painful.

Jackie Donaldson of Oviedo said she was glad to get to work where it was warm because there was no power at her house. She planned to check with neighbors to see if the power is restored before returning home this evening.

"There is no way I'm spending another night in that house with no heat when it's in the 20s," she said.

But what about those who have no home – heated or not – to return to on a cold winter's night?

At Orlando's Coalition for the Homeless, Thursday will be the third consecutive night that the mission declares a "Cold Night", meaning no one would be turned away even if they have reached capacity. Wednesday night, when temperatures hovered around the 28 degree mark for several hours, the Coalition found room for dozens of people who might have been turned away had the temperatures been higher.

Rarely are the 750 beds spread between their three locations all full, but Wednesday, all but one campus was over capacity and Thursday night is expected to bring more in from the cold.

James Brown, an administrator with Farmworkers Self Help (FSH), a non-denominational faith-based group that operates in Dade City, said the 15,000 farm workers in Florida – most of whom are poor migrants – face another danger from the cold. Damage to the crops could put many of them out of work at a time when they could be earning the majority of their winter income.

"When there is crop damage in Florida's fields, many farm workers lose work and as most farm workers exist below the poverty line, any loss of income can be devastating," he said.

FSH relies on donations of food and other necessities from the public and from local churches to help the workers in need. The number of people coming to them for assistance is expected to rise over the next week as the damage from the freeze begins to affect jobs.

Farm workers are also concerned about their crops. On average, a January freeze damaged about a quarter of the state's potatoes, avocados, celery, cabbage, radishes, green beans, squash and strawberries.  Some crops – such as green beans – were about 80 percent damaged. The prospect of a second freeze in farming areas so soon worries agriculture officials.

Sod farmers and ranchers are concerned this second freeze could damage their grasses as well. It's too early to assess the damage from Wednesday night's dip into the 20s and Thursday night's freeze could bring even more harm.

"We're very concerned," said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Now, officials will just wait for the weather's latest body punch before deciding whether crop damage warrants a request for a federal disaster declaration.

Strawberry farmers in eastern Hillsborough generally escaped serious damage from the January freeze but may not be that lucky this time.

At the Ferris Hills Baptist Church in Milton, in the state's panhandle region, volunteers open the doors to their fellowship hall to locals when the temperature drops below freezing. Some of those who come in from the frigid weather are homeless and others are residents who don't have or can't afford heat. The county has no full time shelters for the homeless and the difficult economy has left many without the means to heat their homes.

"We help people that don't have no where to go," says Lamar Howard, who volunteers at the make-shift shelter. At the church, there are cots, blankets, food and maybe, most importantly, heat.


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