Written by The Ledger

1989 Freeze Laid Waste to Citrus, Left Polk in the Dark

1989 Freeze Laid Waste to Citrus, Left Polk by The Ledger


December 25, 1989

Thermometers across Polk County struggled to reach 40 degrees on Christmas Eve as an Arctic blast plunged the county and state into an icy abyss that left many residents in the dark, plumbers scrambling to repair frozen pipes and gardeners helpless to stop the carnage.



By Kevin Bouffard


By Suzie Schottelkotte


25 Years Ago, Plunging Temperatures Laid Waste to Citrus Groves

By Kevin Bouffard | The Ledger
Click and drag slider from side to side to see before & after images.
BEFORE & AFTER: Areas that were once dominated by groves are now filled with residential and commercial buildings.
PHOTO CREDITS: Left, courtesy of the Citrus Tower. Right, Pierre DuCharme, The Ledger.
For venerable Florida citrus veterans Jerry Chicone and Frank Hunt II, the 1989 Christmas freeze remains the event that most impacted the state’s signature agricultural industry.
“I think it was the major event of my lifetime in Florida citrus,” said Chicone, 80, a Lake County-based grower and member of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. “It did the most to change the industry.”
That’s quite a statement given that many other growers, especially those not in the business 25 years ago, might put the 2005 arrival of the deadly tree disease citrus greening on the top of that list.

“No question, greening is still a major problem, but growers, especially the larger growers, have the resources to deal with its effects. They can offset its major effects,” said Hunt, 86, chairman of his family company, Hunt Bros. Inc. in Lake Wales, and also a Citrus Hall member. “From my experience, it (the 1989 freeze) had the most devastating impact.”

The freeze that began around midnight Dec. 24, 1989, and lasted through Christmas day was the seventh to hit Florida that decade and the third “major freeze,” one that kills trees and causes significant crop losses, during that time. A citrus freeze occurs when the temperature falls to 28 degrees or lower for at least four hours.

The 1989 temperatures in Bartow and many citrus counties around the Interstate 4 corridor stayed in that range for 26.5 hours, according to the 1997 book “A History of Florida Citrus Freezes” by John Attaway of Winter Haven, former head of scientific research at the Florida Department of Citrus.

A 1983 Christmas freeze hit that zone for just 23 hours over two days in the Bartow area, Attaway reported, and a second major freeze in January 1985 stayed there for 22.5 hours.

Other aspects made the 1989 freeze particularly devastating.

High winds accompanied freezing temperatures, which meant residual warmth radiating from the soil or the trees themselves was quickly blown away, said Larry Parsons, emeritus professor of plant physiology at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, where he has worked for 35 years.

“A few degrees can make a surprising difference in whether a tree survives of not,” Parsons said. “This was by far the worst freeze in terms of duration and how cold it got.”

Parsons pointed to Attaway’s book, which reported Bartow temperatures 25 years ago reached 24 degrees or colder for a punishing 18 hours, including 3.5 hours at 20 degrees or lower. That compares to the 1983 freeze, when temperatures reached 24 degrees for just 11.5 hours, never reaching 20 degrees, and the 1985 freeze, when it hit that range for only 10.5 hours, reaching 20 degrees for just 30 minutes.


Northern citrus counties around the I-4 corridor were hit the hardest in 1989, although damage occurred statewide.

Hunt Bros., which operates a fresh citrus packinghouse in Lake Wales, had about 5,000 grove acres divided equally between Polk County and the Immokalee area in southwestern Florida. The freeze killed up to 70 percent of their Polk trees and wiped out virtually the entire crop, Hunt said.

“The ones (trees) that survived didn’t have packable (undamaged) fruit,” he said. “We had almost no (Polk) fruit packed after that freeze.”

Most of the remaining fruit was not even suitable for juice, Hunt said. Frozen fruit dries out within weeks after thawing.

The Hunt Bros. Immokalee groves sustained some tree and fruit damage but not nearly to the extent of the Polk groves, he added.

Lake County growers lost 2 million to 3 million trees to the freeze, Chicone recalled.

“It was a major change in the landscape,” he said.

That’s literally true around the Citrus Tower in Clermont, one of the state’s earliest tourist attractions when it opened in 1956. At the time, the view from the top of the 226-foot tower consisted almost entirely of groves. Today, visitors see only buildings.

Before the freeze, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October 1989 projected the Florida harvest at 130 million boxes of oranges and 44 million boxes of grapefruit. Afterward, the actual orange harvest fell 15 percent to 110.2 million boxes.

But because so many oranges had dried out by the end of the harvest season in June, orange juice production fell 30 percent, Attaway reported. Losses did not go higher only because growers had been harvesting more than a month before the freeze and there was less fruit damage in southern counties.

The freeze did more than $1 billion in damage, a 1990 study by the late Ron Muraro, an economist at the Lake Alfred center, estimated. That included 42,699 grove acres destroyed, or 6 percent of the state’s total.

Click and drag slider from side to side to see before & after images.
BEFORE & AFTER: Areas that were once dominated by groves are now filled with residential and commercial buildings.
PHOTO CREDITS: Left, courtesy of the Citrus Tower. Right, Pierre DuCharme, The Ledger.


Several long-term consequences flowed from the 1989 freeze.

Foremost was the exodus of citrus groves from the northern counties around the I-4 corridor further south into Collier, DeSoto, Hendry and neighboring counties. The exodus had begun after the 1983 and 1985 freezes, but it accelerated after the 1989 freeze.

No county illustrates that better than Polk’s neighbor to the north, Lake County.

Before the freeze decade, the USDA citrus census showed Lake had 123,346 commercial grove acres in 1978, second only to Polk with 134,261 acres. In 2014-15 citrus season, Lake has only 10,141 commercial acres while Polk numbers 81,810 acres.

Certainly other factors, notably population growth and residential and commercial development, contributed to that trend. But much of that land became available to developers only after the property owners in Lake and other northern counties gave up on growing citrus.

“It was like three strikes and you’re out. It was happening every three to four years, and a lot of people decided ‘I can’t stay in it anymore,'” Chicone said. “When the big one came at the end of the decade, it removed a lot of the smaller growers. They had replanted earlier and hadn’t recouped their investment yet.”

The decline of citrus in the northern counties contrasts with its growth to the south, USDA figures show.

Over that same period, from 1978 to today, commercial citrus groves more than doubled from 28,903 acres to 63,355 acres in Hendry County and almost doubled in DeSoto County from 33,882 acres to 66,104 acres. Commercial production in Collier County grew five times from 5,975 acres to 30,999 acres.

As Chicone noted, only large growers with the money to plant thousands of acres made the move south. Smaller growers with 100 acres or less simply went out of the business, along with smaller packinghouses and juice processing plants in the area, he said.


The geographic shift led to a profound change, leaving the industry dominated by a few large players among growers, packinghouse and processors, Chicone, Hunt and Parsons agreed. It also resulted in a diminution of knowledge and recognition of Florida citrus among the general public, particularly in big cities such as Tampa and Orlando.

Civic leaders in those communities included many citrus people who represented a positive image of the industry in those major cities, which also play a key role in Florida politics, Chicone said. They still exist, but in the smaller South Florida communities away from major media markets.

“We were among the biggest job creators in those towns. We were important,” he said. “When it moved south, we didn’t get near as much coverage.”

Parsons recalled attending events in Lake County during the 1980s that had 80 to 100 growers in the audience. That’s probably close to the total number of growers there are today.

“If you weren’t involved directly in citrus, you knew a lot of people that were,” Parsons said of the time before the 1989 freeze. “Especially after it moved south, citrus became a corporate business. You don’t have as many people in your community involved in citrus.”

Kevin Bouffard can be reached at kevin.bouffard@theledger.com or at 863-401-6980. Read more on Florida citrus on his Facebook page, Florida Citrus Witness.

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'In my 45 years in this business, that was the worst weekend I'd ever seen.' Paul Davis, owner of Paul's Plumbing in Lakeland

’89 Chill Left Polk Dark & Freezing

By Suzie Schottelkotte | The Ledger
Thermometers across Polk County struggled to reach 40 degrees on Christmas Eve 1989 as an Arctic blast plunged the county and state into an icy abyss that left many residents in the dark, plumbers scrambling to repair frozen pipes and gardeners helpless to stop the carnage.
“In my 45 years in this business, that was the worst weekend I’d ever seen,” said Paul Davis, owner of Paul’s Plumbing in Lakeland. “It started Christmas Eve morning and just didn’t let up.”
The mercury tumbled to a record-setting 32 degrees in Lakeland on Dec. 23, and climbed to only 47 degrees during the day, said Rick Davis, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Ruskin. As dusk fell, the temperature dropped like a rock.

On Sunday morning, Christmas Eve, the temperature bottomed out at 21 degrees in Lakeland, another record low, and reaching only 40 degrees made for a another record low. All remain unbroken, Davis said.

That Dec. 23, Carl Mason was working for Ward’s Heating and Cooling when he topped a hill and witnessed steam rising from Lake Hollingsworth in Lakeland.

“I knew then that something bad was going on here,” he said.

As the temperature plummeted, the frigid air settling on the lake’s warm waters had triggered a blanket of mist — a harbinger of what was to come.

It’s been 25 years since the Christmas freeze of 1989, but Mason said he remembers it like it was yesterday.

“I was going from one call after the other that Saturday, working on units that were breaking down,” he said. “At about 6 p.m., I called in to check messages on the answering machine at the office. We’d usually have one or two calls come in on a Saturday. That afternoon we had 21 new messages, and it was just getting started.”

Johnny Starling of Quality Heating & Air in Winter Haven said he turned down a host of invitations from grateful customers who wanted him to share a Christmas meal as he moved from one house to another repairing heaters.

“I told my family to go ahead and celebrate Christmas without me,” he said. “The calls just kept on coming in for days.”
As heaters battled the icy cold, power companies struggled to meet the demand. By dawn on Dec. 23, demand outweighed capacity, forcing power providers to take drastic measures.

Cherie Jacobs, spokeswoman for TECO, said the rolling outages were a last resort, and one TECO hasn’t used since that Christmas weekend.

“We’ve been around for more than 100 years, and that’s the only time we’ve had to resort to that,” she said. “It is the last resort in our emergency response, but the demand that weekend was just that high.”

Two of TECO’s power plants were down when the storm moved in — one for maintenance and another for repairs — but Jacobs said the utility wouldn’t have been able to meet the record-setting demand even if those units had been running.
And TECO wasn’t alone.

At Lakeland Electric, frozen water lines knocked out the McIntosh coal-fired generating plant, leading to rolling blackouts beginning that Saturday for about 15 percent of the city’s estimated 85,000 customers. The Ledger reported another 5,000 more customers were left in the cold and dark by downed power lines and other weather-related problems.

Lakeland resident Jeff Lamont said he remembered warming his 9-month-old son’s bottles on a camp stove on Christmas Eve morning, then packing up his wife, 5-year-old twins and his son for a trip to her parents’ house. He stayed behind to protect their South Lakeland home.

“I spent Christmas Eve at the house by myself,” he said. “I built a fire in the fireplace and had a little bit of light and warmth from that. I slept in a sleeping bag, but it was still cold.”

Some residents recalled assembling bikes and other Christmas gifts by flashlight, and others huddled at the few area restaurants in pockets that hadn’t lost power.

Wayne Lewis of Bartow said he had power Christmas Eve morning, but he couldn’t take a shower before church because his water pipes were frozen.

“I was playing the piano at church, so I had to go,” he said. “I put on a couple shirts and crawled up under the house with a blow dryer to thaw out the copper pipes to the bathroom. It worked, too, but it was really cold under there.”

In southeastern Polk, residents linked to Florida Power Corp., now Duke Energy, endured the same rolling outages as others in the county.

Across Polk, cash registers in shopping centers and malls fell silent as blackouts plagued one of the biggest shopping weekends of the year. Meanwhile, power companies searched for ways to boost capacity.

Generally, when a region experiences a surge in demand, Jacobs said, power companies can pull from other areas in the state to meet it. But the 1989 storm affected the entire state.

“We could always get power from the southern part of the state,” Jacobs said, “but they needed power as badly as we did.”
Major power companies now maintain a 20 percent capacity reserve to ensure they can meet demand in extreme situations.
“That gives us a little more wiggle room in times of extreme temperatures,” she said.

Suzie Schottelkotte can be reached at suzie.schottelkotte@theledger.com or 863-533-9070.

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