National News

Storm casts shivers

Posted January 4, 2018 11:31 p.m. EST

through Tampa Bay

The cold has been unrelenting.

One day after delivering Tallahassee's first measurable snowfall in decades, a massive winter storm flung arctic air toward Florida, sending overnight temperatures in the Tampa Bay area below freezing.

The temperature drop in Florida posed a threat to life -- humans, animals and plants, alike. Bay area farmers, of both the plant and fish variety, were forced to take precautions to save their crops.

Aquaculture, the growing of fish, plants and other underwater species, is a roughly $70 million industry and is particularly vulnerable to cold spells like this one, said David Boozer, the executive director of two Florida aquaculture trade groups. Hillsborough County has dozens of such fish farms.

Farmers who grow ornamental tropical fish for aquariums -- which are the most easily disturbed by the cold weather -- have had to cover their fish ponds with a layer of heat-capturing film to ensure the water doesn't get too cold, Boozer said. The film works like car windows on a toasty day: it lets sunlight in and holds the heat. Another strategy is to run well water, which stays a constant 72 degrees, into the ponds.

The animals can become stressed when the water temperature dips below 70 degrees. Below 50 degrees is imminently dangerous.

"It doesn't take too many hours when you're down in the 30 degrees area for water temperatures to drop quickly," Boozer said, "especially when there's cold rain and no sunlight."

Wednesday was a particularly challenging day for those farmers, he said, because it was cloudy in the morning and then cold rain fell into the ponds. And it never got warmer than the 50s outside.

"I hate to use the term, 'the perfect storm,' " he said. But that's what it was.

For those who grow produce, the cold also means more work and worry. Strawberry farmers across Hillsborough and the state turned on their sprinklers Thursday morning so the water would freeze, encasing the berries in a protective layer of ice.

Still, a light freeze can actually be good for a crop. It makes the fruit sweeter, said Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

"The crop looks great," he said.

Wild animals, too, have been knocked from their normal routine. More than 300 manatees descended upon Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River to enjoy the spring water, which remains a constant temperature. Sometimes they huddle near power plant discharge pipes for the same reason, said Dr. Ray Ball, senior veterinarian at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa.

"Cold is definitely something we monitor with the manatees," he said, "because they're tropical mammals and they're at the northern end of their range."

But Ball didn't expect this relatively quick cold snap to threaten the local manatee population. It takes weeks of prolonged cold, like the 2010 winter, he said, to threaten manatees en masse.

Individual manatees can find themselves in trouble, though. There's usually not much food near the springs and power plants, and manatees create a lot of heat when they eat. So it's a trade-off, he said, and manatees that choose to venture into cooler water in search of food risk being stranded if they don't find any.

Humans were still being affected by the cold as well. Thousands of bay-area customers lost power early Thursday, and the flight delays extended to Tampa International Airport.

Still, Tampa Bay fared well compared to northeastern states.

The storm's rapid intensification on Thursday translated to up to a foot of snow, coming down so heavily it caused white-out conditions.

"This is not that much weaker than (Hurricane) Sandy," 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Bobby Deskins said, recalling the 2012 storm that struck the eastern seaboard.

The storm brought Tallahassee its first taste of snow since 1989. . The National Weather Service measured 0.1 inches in the state capital on Wednesday, and icy roads extended southeast to Lake City, shutting down part of Interstate 10. Social media posts piled up showing big white flakes and a thin coating of powder on Tallahassee streets and lawns.

About 10,000 Duke Energy customers in Pinellas County awoke Thursday to find they had lost power, a result, a utility spokeswoman said, of the low temperatures putting extra stress on equipment. That left many unable to heat their homes on one of the coldest mornings of the winter.

The bulk of the outages had been restored later Thursday, Duke spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said, but "isolated equipment problems are possible, which could result in scattered outages."

Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties have all made cold weather shelters available to those who can't find refuge.

As the storm marched north, barometric pressure fell rapidly causing clouds and wind to spiral around a center, reminiscent of a hurricane. But don't call it that, said 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Grant Gilmore.

"You can't have a hurricane in the winter," he said. Hurricanes need warm water.

Instead, the storm is technically a mid-latitude cyclone. Its quick intensification into a cyclonic storm is called "bombogenesis," meaning it dropped at least 24 millibars of pressure in less than 24 hours. The storm, in fact, dropped more than 50 millibars, one of the most dramatic drops in pressure on record. Its central pressure, reported at 951 millibars on Thursday, rivaled that of Hurricane Sandy, Deskins said.

And the cyclonic spiral, which spins counterclockwise, shot cold wind our direction as the storm moved north.

More than 4,300 flight were canceled within, into or out of the United States on Thursday, according to flightaware.com, which tracks airlines.

At Tampa International, at least 75 flights were canceled, about 16 percent of the airport's daily operations, due to the conditions up north. Most of those were effected by weather in New York and Boston. And cold weather in Tampa forced airport officials to roll out their de-icing equipment Thursday.

Times staff writers Divya Kumar, and Philip Morgan contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com.