Region has frigid wake-up call

The new year brought the first blast of winter to Pasco County, and to the Tampa Bay region.

Freeze warnings and wind chill advisories rained down daily from the National Weather Service, as frigid air dipped into north and central Florida, and stayed for days.

For the first time in decades, Tallahassee had measurable snowfall.

The Greenery of Tampa Bay, a nursery on Land O’ Lakes Boulevard, covered some of its cold-sensitive plants, as arctic air arrived in Pasco County. (Kathy Steele)

Here in Tampa Bay, snow was a no-show, but temperatures plunged into the low 30s and upper 20s.

The unexpected weather meant many area residents turned on the heat in their homes for the first time, and pulled out those rarely used sweaters and coats.

Construction workers went to work wearing coats; nurseries were forced to cover cold-sensitive plants.

The hard freezes also put Pasco County, social service agencies, farmers, and wildlife officials on alert.

The county opened cold-weather emergency shelters for five nights in west and east Pasco, from Jan. 2 through Jan. 6.

In east Pasco, Restored Hope in Dade City, Samaritan Project of Zephyrhills, and Helping Rock, also in Zephyrhills, helped families and individuals to find shelters and resources for food and warm clothing.

In West Pasco, the United Way helped families who needed shelter, and Joining Hands Mission, in Holiday, helped individuals.

They are part of Pasco’s “Cold Weather Shelter Program” that provides outreach to the county’s neediest residents.

The program is a coalition of area churches; nonprofit agencies, such as the United Way, the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross; the Homeless Coalition of Pasco County; and social service organizations.

Manatees are affected by extreme cold weather, often swimming into warm-water habitats, including discharge canals of power plants and natural springs. Wildlife officials asked that boaters watch out for manatees in shallow waters near the coast, both inland and coastal. Boaters also should obey posted manatee speed zone signs. (Courtesy of Southwest Florida Management District)

Pasco’s Office of Emergency Management, the sheriff’s office and public transportation department also provide support.

Shelters generally are opened when temperatures drop below 36 degrees, with or without wind chill, for four hours or more, according to the county’s website, PascoCountyFl.net.

The shelters, which normally open by 6 p.m., are operated by nonprofits and religious organizations. Churches and area motels often help out.

Depending on fund and donation availability, shelters can provide food, drinks and blankets, according to the county’s website.

Not all shelters are able to take families, but the program will find ways of providing shelter for families in need.

Kathy Hunt is the outreach director for Restored Hope, an organization she started about four years ago in Dade City.

She works with a local motel to secure rooms for homeless individuals and families. In one instance, a year ago, she helped a mother find warm shelter for three nights. She had been living in a shed, with her four children, Hunt said.

Over the past week, she monitored the phone line for her organization during the five nights of predicted freeze. A local motel provided a couple of rooms. And, she also checked on a homeless camp in the area.

“I’ve never seen cold that latest this long, this early,” Hunt said.

The Samaritan Project, in Zephyrhills, also monitored for phone calls, helping a couple of families find shelter.

“We want people to reach out to us,” said volunteer Paul Bathrick.

Eddy Reyes, founder of Helping Rock, said in total the three nonprofits in east Pasco, probably aided about 40 people who needed shelter from the cold. Helping Rock took in about eight people, he said.

Helping Rock is the only transitional housing program in east Pasco that can provide shelter services and other resources to the homeless population on a daily basis, Reyes said.

“There is a huge need,” he said.

Construction workers at a future apartment complex off State Road 54 are bundled up against the cold weather. (Kathy Steele)

The Pasco County Health Department offered tips on staying warm during the freeze.

Officials said to stay indoors as much as possible. When venturing outside, people should dress warmly in layers of clothing.

Also, as temperatures dip below freezing, home water taps should be kept slightly open so that they drip continuously. And, pets should be brought indoors and provided warm shelter.

Fire officials worried about the potential for house fires as residents sought to stay warm.

A major risk is the improper use of space heaters, said Karl Thompson, Pasco’s fire marshal and fire prevention division chief.

Residents in older homes, without central heat and air, are more likely to rely on those than people in newer homes, he said.

“I am worried as temperatures get into the 20s especially in some older, smaller homes that don’t have insulation,” he said. “These were built for Florida and not for the cold.”

People should avoid placing space heaters “too close to curtains. They can tip over and some don’t have automatic cutoff (systems),” Thompson said.

Christmas trees can also pose a hazard and should be disposed of, he added.

The cold weather also put farmers and wildlife officials on alert.

It’s early to know how crops, such as peaches and blueberries, will fare in the cold, but farmers are experienced in what to do, said Whitney C. Elmore, director of Pasco County Extension.

Pasco is unique in having “micro-climates” in different areas of the county, said Elmore.

For example, Dade City generally gets colder than Wesley Chapel.

“One or two degrees can make a difference,” Elmore said.

In addition to farm crops, landscaping also can take a hit from the cold.

Elmore said this was the first time in about seven to eight years that the area had a cold snap this early in the year, she said.

“A lot of people have taken that as a mandate to plant more tropicals,” she said. “I am concerned about that.”

People should take precautions and cover sensitive plants.

But, there is a right way and a wrong way to do that.

Elmore said the coverings – often bed sheets – should never touch the plants. It’s best to build a small scaffold that can hold up the coverings.

They should be removed when the sun comes up the next day, she added.

And, she cautions against using heaters to protect landscaping, including fruit trees. “This is certainly a fire hazard.”

Irrigation also can be an issue.

If possible, Elmore said irrigation systems should be turned off on the coldest nights.

“If they need to irrigate, it is best early in the morning when the temperatures are warming up,” she said.

But, residents should check with the county or extension agency regarding restrictions on when watering is allowed, she added.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission monitored populations of sea turtles and manatees, according to a news release from the state agency.

Sea turtles can be stunned by cold water temperatures, and float listlessly in the water or near the shore. While they might appear dead, wildlife officials said they often are still alive.

Residents can report such sightings to the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at (888) 404-3922.

Manatees also are affected by extreme cold weather, often swimming into warm-water habitats, including discharge canals of power plants and natural springs.

Wildlife officials asked that boaters watch out for manatees in shallow waters near the coast, both inland and coastal. They also should obey posted manatee speed zone signs.

For information from Restored Hope, call (352) 437-4815; for the Samaritan Project, call (813) 810-8670.

For information on the county’s cold weather shelter program, visit PascoCountyFl.net.

Heating safety tips

  • Keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet from heating equipment
  • Have a 3-foot “kid-free zone” around open fires and space heaters
  • Never use your oven to heat your home
  • Have a qualified professional install stationary space heaters, water heaters or central heating equipment, according to local codes and manufacturer’s instructions
  • Have heating equipment and chimneys cleaned and inspected every year by a qualified professional
  • Remember to turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed
  • Always use the right kind of fuel, specified by the manufacturer, for fuel-burning space heaters
  • Make sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to stop sparks from flying into the room. Ashes should be cool before putting them in a metal container. Keep the container a safe distance away from your home.
  • Test smoke alarms at least once a month.

Source: National Fire Protection Association

Published January 10, 2018

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