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Tampa Bay record lows burst pipes, threaten berry and fish farms

In winters past, when they ran the irrigation system at Parkesdale Farms to preserve the berry crop in a protective shell of ice, the icicles measured inches.

But on Wednesday night, one of the coldest nights in years, the icicles hung more than a foot long.

"I was a kid the last time I saw this much ice," said Matt Parke, who grew up on his family’s 145-acre strawberry farm in Dover and now runs it.

The mercury there dropped to 22 degrees, Parke said. There were record lows across the Tampa Bay region as residents battled to save crops of fish and plants, deal with burst pipes and power blackouts and, in one extreme case, a patch of black ice that sent a BMW skidding on the Veterans Expressway.

The cold snap was forecast to be short-lived, though. Thursday night turned chilly again, but temperatures were not expected to fall as far as they had the night before.

After record lows, it gets pleasant again

For the first time in recorded history at St. Petersburg’s Albert Whitted Airport, it froze.

The thermometer there bottomed out at 32 degrees Thursday morning, cracking the 1959 record of 33 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

Record lows were set all over the region: Plant City’s 22 degrees broke the 1977 record of 24; Ruskin’s 27 degrees broke the 1977 and 1981 record of 29; at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, it dropped to 31, the lowest in two decades.

The temperature at Tampa International Airport tied a record low of 29 degrees, which was reached back in 1965, 1977 and 1981. And Brooksville tied its 2003 record low of 23 degrees.

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The normal low this time of year is 51 degrees, according to 10Weather WTSP, and the normal high is 70.

Thursday night was expected to be brisk again, with most cities across the bay area forecast to see lows in the mid 30s. But there was no respite foreseen for New Port Richey, Brooksville and Crystal River, which again braced for below-freezing temperatures.

Today should be warmer, with highs into the 60s and a low in the upper 40s. Milder weather should return Saturday, with highs forecast to be in the 70s and warmer-than-normal temperatures into next week.

An unlikely road hazard in Tampa

One driver encountered a phenomenon she likely never expected to encounter in Tampa, especially on a dry day: black ice.

The 26-year-old was driving south on the Veterans about 6 a.m. Thursday when she hit a patch of ice just south of the Hutchinson Road exit, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The black BMW spun out and struck the median wall. She was not badly injured, troopers said.

It hadn’t rained. So what caused it? A leaky water truck parked nearby.

The water truck is among the equipment being used for the expressway expansion project and began to leak sometime overnight, said Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Christine Girardin. The water flowed onto a section of the bridge over Wilcox Road, creating a roughly 20-foot-long ice patch across both lanes.

At one point, crews had to shut down both southbound lanes while they went at the ice with chisels, salt and sand.

In Hernando, fearing for the future of farms

The temperature gauge at JG Ranch off Wiscon Road in Hernando County read 21 degrees at 7 a.m. Owner George Casey said it felt even colder.

The recent cold snaps are "not normal in any way" for Hernando farms, he said, and the effects of the colder-than-normal weather have been dire.

"This is the coldest I have seen it in years, and it has affected us very dramatically," said Casey, 76, who has farmed most of his life. "This weather really sets us on our heels and has hit the entire industry hard."

His strawberries looked fine Thursday morning, encased in a quarter-inch of ice. But it’s been so cold his plants have stopped growing new berries. That could lead to a two- to three-week shortage before production recovers.

"I don’t think there’s going to be any farmers making money this year," Casey said. "And the question is: Are there any financiers ready to finance them next year?"

For younger farmers with shorter track records, Casey said, credit might be tough to find: "There will be some farmers that won’t make it through because of the financial woes this weather will cause.

"But that’s just part of farming."

In Tampa, city braces for more burst pipes

The cold also wreaked havoc on utilities.

Thousands of Duke Energy customers statewide lost power Thursday morning as temperatures stressed equipment, the company said.

In Tampa, officials braced for another spike in water main breaks, said Chuck Weber, director of the city’s water department.

The city typically has fewer than 10 active breaks at any given time, he said. After a cold snap earlier this month, that number climbed to nearly 60. Nearly all of those have been repaired. But on Thursday, crews were working to fix 16 main breaks and six breaks to service lines.

Pipes contract in the cold weather, then expand when warm, causing them to break. Soil does the same thing, Weber said, causing pipes to shift.

Fish farmers fear worst for their stocks

Florida’s fish farmers scrambled to cover their ponds with plastic to protect them from the deadly chill.

Many expect their fish to perish anyway.

Aquaculture — the growing of fish, plants and other underwater species — is a roughly $70 million industry in Florida. Between the earlier cold snap and this week’s near-record-low temperatures, some fish farmers in the bay area are projecting "considerable" losses to their crops, said Craig Watson, director of the University of Florida’s Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin.

"It’s a big hit, needless to say, but we’ve seen worse," he said.

Fish can become stressed when the water temperature dips below 70 degrees. In water 50 degrees or lower, all but the most hardy species die. To protect more cold-sensitive species and varieties, farmers cover some ponds with a clear layer of plastic that traps heat while allowing sunlight in. Another strategy is to pump 72-degree well water into the ponds.

Nevertheless, some farmers expect to lose more than 50 percent of their more sensitive species in covered ponds, Watson said. Some are also reporting losses to more cold-tolerant fish crops in uncovered ponds.

Just like fruit and vegetable farmers, fish farmers know setbacks come with the job, Watson said. "They’re farmers," he said, "and they recover."

Times staff writers Sara DiNatale and Megan Reeves contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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Tampa Bay record lows burst pipes, threaten berry and fish farms