Thursday, January 03, 2008

It's Cold Outside!

Well, maybe it was only a two cat night, not a three dog night, but temperatures in Florida dropped well into the freezing zone yesterday and this morning. Here in Tampa, we saw numbers in the 20s, and word is still out on how the strawberry crop fared.

It's not the coldest it's ever been here, and for youse guys up North, it's practically beach weather. But for Floridans, sub-freezing temperatures threaten livelihoods. Which is in part why Governor Crist declared a state of emergency, allowing farmers to get their crops out of the fields and to market more quickly. But, speaking optimistically, this 2008 cold snap is not a repeat of the winter of 1894-1895, when severe freezes changed the trajectory of Florida's history.

On December 29, 1894, extremely cold temperates reached far southward in Florida, as far as Palm Beach. In Tampa, the mercury dropped to 18 degrees fahrenheit. Fruit dropped from trees, blanketing the ground, and farmers lost the year's crop. This was bad enough, but on February 7, 1895, the temperatures dropped again. The trees and plants that survived the first frost had just begun to recover, sending out new, tender shoots. Whereas the first freeze destroyed one year's harvest, the second freeze killed the trees to the ground. Since it takes 5 to 10 years for citrus trees to first bear fruit, the loss was more than many farmers could overcome. When you read the histories of Florida's towns and counties, it's a common theme that after the freezes of 1894 and 1895, people left in droves, either to return North or to go further south in Florida. It took ten or more years in some cases for communities to recover from this loss. The state's citrus industry was devastated as well, with less than 150,000 boxes of fruit shipped out of state in 1895, a 97% drop from the 5,000,000 boxes shipped in 1893.

And then there's Julia Tuttle's orange blossoms.

The romantic version of the story goes something like this. Railroad magnate Henry Flagler was huddled in frigid north Florida, when he received a box from Julia Tuttle in Miami. In the box were fresh orange blossoms, proof that Miami had escaped the cold hand of nature. Inspired by the white petals, untouched by frost, Flagler then built his railroad farther south, from Palm Beach to Miami. The reality is that Flagler already knew Tuttle and and others in Miami, and was already considering extending the railroad down there, but didn't want it to detract from his hotel in Palm Beach. The freeze was the impetus for Flagler's decision to go ahead and put Miami on his map.

The weather this week hasn't been like it was 110 years ago, and farmers and grove managers have new fruit and vegetable varieties and new techniques to help weather cold temperatures. But it's prudent to remember that in Florida, a day or two of freezing temperatures can have long lasting and long reaching ramifications.


  1. Anonymous2:54 PM

    Great write up about the freezes that affected the citrus industry and that was the impetus for Flagler extending the railroad.

    Many of the first organe groves back in the day were in N. Fl near Jacksonville, St. Augustine-St. John's river area. The freezes of the 1890's did those areas in.
    The railroad back then used to place placards on the trains when forecasted/impending freezes were iminent. That was the official warning method of the day.

    I know the freezes in the 1980's were so frequent and so severe that it effectively changed the agriculutral zones in Fl. citrus growers moved even further south.
    I'm trying to find more data on those freezes.

    Fortunately the Freeze of 2008 didn't turn out as severe as originally feared. Temperatures in the 20's were expected all the way to Ft. Myers and Lake Okechobee. The winds stayed up sparing most of S. Fl from a devastating freeze.

    Amazing history behind Flaglers Railroad.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I was a newcomer in Florida in the late 1980's, but I remember the acres and acres of dead citrus tree stumps in the central part of the state. Those same rolling hills are now acres and acres of houses, apartments, and shopping centers. It's an incredible change in how we use the land.


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