blackouts, burst pipes and frozen citrus | will it snow in florida

Nearly 40 years ago on Christmas morning, Nikki Gay woke up to her own her breath coming out in frosty puffs.

Gay and her entire Lakeland neighborhood were experiencing a blackout spurred by a demand for power as temperatures plunged overnight. The blackout, which started in the early morning, would last for hours, the Tampa Tribune reported.

That day, temperatures in the Tampa Bay area plummeted into the low 20s. Neighbors flocked to Gay’s home — the only one with a fireplace.

The Tribune paints a picture of a neighbor brewing coffee over a portable gas grill, while others huddle around the fire to keep warm. Power wouldn’t return to the neighborhood until 11 a.m.

“There was no Christmas music, so we had to sing our own songs,” Gay told the Tribune.

Related: Tampa Bay’s Christmas weather could be coldest in 27 years

Dec. 25, 1983, is the coldest Christmas on record for the Tampa Bay area. According to the National Weather Service, the low in Tampa was 20 degrees, and the high reached only 38. It wasn’t a white Christmas, but it could have been.

A review of newspapers reporting about the weather on Christmases past shows that the 1983 holiday left Floridians scrambling with frigid and foreign temperatures.

This coming Christmas is going to be cold by Florida standards — maybe even chilly enough to land in the top 10 coldest in the state’s recorded weather history. But Sunday almost certainly won’t be like 1983 when pipes burst, oranges froze solid and people went without power in freezing temperatures for hours.

“It’s going to be cold, but not anywhere near what the record would be,” Nicole Carlisle, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Tampa Bay office, said of this weekend’s temperatures.

The coldest day of the holiday weekend will be Saturday, when temperatures will drop to near freezing in Tampa. On Christmas Day, the high will be near 50 and the low will be in the mid-30s, according to the National Weather Service.

Related: Tampa Bay shelters brace for cold fronts this weekend

Rick Davis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said on Tuesday that areas to the north of Tampa Bay, like Hernando County and some areas of Pasco, are likely to dip below freezing Saturday and Sunday.

In other areas across Tampa Bay, temperatures might plunge to just above freezing, but the wind could make it feel like the upper 20s, Davis said.

A Tampa man left his yard sprinkler on all night to protect his plants, resulting in icicles.
A Tampa man left his yard sprinkler on all night to protect his plants, resulting in icicles. [ JOHN COFFEE | Tampa Tribune ]

Photos from Dec. 25, 1983, in the Tribune and the then-St. Petersburg Times show massive icicles hanging from trees. According to the Tribune, the icicles were from a sprinkler used in hopes of saving plants. The frozen water was meant to insulate plants from damage.

Many of the articles reporting on the 1983 Christmas Day cold focused on the farmers who spent the night in the freezing temperatures desperately trying to save their crops. Farmers were fighting a “no-winning” battle, a Tribune article said.

A Dade City citrus farmer tested his oranges Christmas morning when the temperature was about 19 degrees.

“They were frozen solid,” he told the Tribune.

An article from the Tribune from early January 1984 said state officials estimated that 85% of the state’s citrus hadn’t been harvested before the freeze. In just Hernando, the Florida Department of Agriculture estimated a $6 million citrus loss, which equates to more than $17 million today.

The New York Times reported the 1983 freeze caused nearly $1 billion in damage and killed trees across 120,000 acres. Farmers pruned trees to encourage growth, but another freeze in January 1985 ruined the trees’ chances of recovery.

The freezes of the 1980s, including another in 1989, caused growers to sell their land to developers after many farmers gave up on growing citrus, according to an article from the Orlando Sentinel.

Across Tampa Bay on that Christmas Day in 1983, people were calling city, police and fire departments to report burst pipes.

In Pasco County, the utilities department had reports that several hundred water lines froze. That day, the utilities department had just 10 to 15 servicemen working, a St. Petersburg Times article said.

“And the freeze showed no respect for next month’s Super Bowl site,” a Tribune article said.

At Tampa Stadium, which would host Super Bowl XVIII on Jan. 22, 1984, the pipes along the stadium’s upper tier froze and burst; most of the damage was limited to the press box, the article stated.

In addition to burst pipes, some people were left without power. The Tribune reported that about 1,500 Tampa Electric Company customers lost electricity for parts of the day.

A Tribune article said a Metropolitan Ministries shelter on North Florida Avenue was “an icebox” on Christmas because the building’s furnace had broken. Seventeen children huddled under blankets and another 14 adults sought a warm place to stay at the shelter, the article said.

Parts of Pinellas County fared better than the rest of Tampa Bay. In St. Petersburg, there were only eight calls for burst pipes. The St. Petersburg Fire Department said most of their Christmas calls were false alarms from fire detectors set off by “quirks of the temperature change.”

The 1983 Christmas remains the coldest in Tampa Bay’s history. The only other day to have a low in the 20s on Christmas was in 1989, when electric companies implemented rolling blackouts.

Of the 1983 Christmas Day freeze, Helen Parkes told the St. Petersburg Times: “The freeze didn’t come gradually, it just came down perplunk.”

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