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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Joe Henderson: Recent cold snap brings to mind the Big Chill of Christmas ‘89

You know that little snap of frigid — OK, chilly — weather we just had? In Florida, we call that winter, a season we typically measure in hours.

If it’s really savage, the thermometer might not rise above 50 degrees for two or sometimes three whole days. That sends us on frantic scavenger hunts through our closets for sweaters, heavy coats, gloves, ear muffs and so on while our public officials plead for everyone to remain calm.

But, listen up kids. You think this was cold? Let me tell you about the big chill of 1989. We’re almost to the 28-year anniversary of a time when the entire state of Florida experienced the real thing for four way-too-long days.

Beginning Dec. 22 of that year, a massive high-pressure system of arctic air met a low-pressure trough along the East Coast and started sucking up moisture from the Atlantic Ocean.

By the time all the meteorological mixing was done, the southeast looked and felt like all those shivering northern cities we love to taunt every winter.

Temperatures dipped into the 20s, but that wasn’t the worst of it. All kidding aside, it’s not that unusual here to see temperatures tap dance around the freezing level or a little below.

This was different. Sustained winds that topped 25 miles an hour made it feel like a winter blast coming off Lake Michigan.

By Christmas Eve, an incredible phenomenon was happening. There was ice. There was sleet. Some places in northern Florida had as much as 3 inches of snow.

In Boston they would call that a dusting.

We called it a blizzard.

The Florida Highway Patrol closed parts of Interstate 10 near Tallahassee after ice began to cover bridges, causing three major collisions, including one that involved about 20 cars.

At least 26 deaths were blamed on the weather.

Air travel was disrupted, forcing travelers to scramble for hotel rooms that quickly sold out. And parts of Florida had an actual white Christmas, not the stuff that is artificially produced every now and then at a shopping mall.

That sounds like something to wish for — over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house we go. Except that if you tried to drive, there was a real chance you could wind up in a river, not over it.

We weren’t ready to handle this.

"It was truly devastating," said Tampa’s Bob Martinez, who was governor at the time. "I remember calling up the National Guard because people there were so many wrecks and people were trapped under interstate overpasses and didn’t have blankets."

Thousands of acres of orange trees were destroyed, and it proved too much for many citrus owners who had already felt the impact of two other freezes during the 1980s. Farmers cashed out and sold their land to developers, and the industry feels that impact still today.

And here in Tampa, we were introduced to the concept of rolling power blackouts — just in time to ruin the best laid Christmas dinner plans for thousands of people.

TECO’s system wasn’t prepared to meet the demand for heat in thousands of homes throughout the area, so it scheduled power outages on what was supposed to be a rotating basis — 15 minutes off, then four hours on.

Except it was just the opposite for many folks, including my family — 15 minutes on, at least four hours off. We were shivering inside our home, and we felt a little cut off from the world. No power meant no updates on TV.

We piled on every blanket we could find, and I think we slept in our coats that night.

It really does get cold in Florida, sometimes for several hours. What happened in 1989, though, was nature’s way of reminding us why so many people move here in the first place.

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