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Texans weathering rare freeze; no damage to produce noted so far

by Chip Carter | February 02, 2011
Texans are dealing with rolling power blackouts, burst water pipes and snow on the ground as far south as Houston amidst an unprecedented cold snap that has paralyzed the state this week. And more wintry weather is on the way, including the possibility of freezing precipitation in the entire eastern half of the state Feb. 3-4.

The good news is that the same cloud cover that might bring sleet, snow or freezing rain has also kept temperatures at or just below freezing since Feb. 2

So far, low temperatures and light precipitation have not created problems for the state's produce industry. Most citrus growers ramped up harvesting in the early part of the week in anticipation of the cold weather.

"There has been no issue whatsoever with the cold," Mike Martin of Rio Queen Citrus in Mission, TX, told The Produce News at 3 p.m. Feb. 3. "If anything, it's been good, giving the trees a little shock."

At around the same time, Trent Bishop of Lone Star Citrus, also in Mission, told The Produce News, "They had projected temperatures as low as 22 last night — we didn't see anything even close to that. It was cloudy all day yesterday and all day today. The east end of the [Rio Grande] Valley is getting a little moisture, and we've got a little mist coming down. But for it still to be mist, that means it's just barely at freezing."

Other commodities have apparently escaped damage as well. Carlos Zambito, manager of the McAllen Produce Terminal Market in McAllen, TX, near the Mexican border, told The Produce News Feb. 3 that he has "not really" seen any impact on trade or traffic due to the weather.

"There's no ice or rain to speak of; it's just cold. They're predicting we might see some snow flurries, which would be the first or second time in history — eight or nine years ago, it actually snowed at Christmas, but that's it," Mr. Zambito said. "So far, it's been cloudy, and hopefully it will remain cloudy."

Power outages are of more immediate concern to Texans than the weather forecast. The state's power grid is ill-equipped to handle the increased demand for winter heat, and rolling blackouts have been in effect since Feb. 2. San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co. LP, which has 315 stores in Texas and northern Mexico, saw power outages at several of its stores Feb. 2 and sent refrigerated trucks and tons of dry ice to stores statewide in case there is a need for products to be removed from electricity-dependent in-store coolers. Store shelves were stocked with extra firewood, easy-heat foods like canned stews and other cold-weather essentials.

Temperatures are expected to warm to the 60s and 70s across the state by the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 5, but the state's growers have another 36-48 hours to worry.

"The weathermen need their heads examined for last night's forecast," Mr. Martin said. "They had forecast 21 or 25 [degrees], and we got 31. Tonight they're talking about a chance of sleet and a wintry mix with a low of 28. Even that we're not too concerned about. Tomorrow night a low of 29. And it depends on what you look at. Accuweather was closer last night; the National Weather Service is calling for 25 tonight, but that's not likely with the kind of cloud cover we have. Upper 20s, 30 degrees is more likely, and we can handle that. I think we're in pretty good shape — this is one of those that had the potential to be a big problem."

Mr. Bishop was a little more cautious. "We're right in the middle of it right now — we're just waiting to see what's going to happen in the next 36 hours. We haven't found any frozen fruit yet — we have not cut any ice yet, that's for sure. Anybody who is telling you one way or another is just guessing though. It's been cold for 14 hours now, I'm looking outside and it's still pretty cold, and this time tomorrow it's going to be pretty cold. We've got another 24 hours then we'll go out and take a look and see what we find."