ORLANDO, Fla. – Snow isn’t something you hear about that often in a Central Florida forecast, but 45 years ago on Jan. 19, we got a little taste of what our friends up North deal with every winter. It was just a lighter version.
Let’s take a look back.
Late on Jan. 18, 1977, a strong arctic front moved through the Sunshine State, bringing frigid air through Jan. 21. Although reports show that temperatures were slightly above freezing when the snow fell, the freezing layer was only 1,500 feet above sea level. This is low for Florida.
According to the National Weather Service office in Melbourne, a trace of snow was reported in Daytona Beach and Orlando. But it didn’t stop there. Miami and Homestead also had some snow reports. Flurries mixed with rain were even reported in Freeport, Bahamas.
Behind the front, a strong arctic high settled in, pumping freezing temperatures into Florida. Melbourne recorded its all-time record low of 17 degrees on this day. Orlando even tied a record originally broken in the 1800s with six consecutive nights below freezing. These temperatures meant trouble for the agriculture business that flourished through the state.
The Big Financial Hit
The prolonged wave of freezing temperatures hit Florida famers big time. Estimated losses statewide at the time hit a whopping $350 million. That translates to roughly $1.3 billion today. Overall economic losses were reported at nearly $2 billion that year. Nearly all the citrus crop was destroyed and 35 of the 67 counties in the state were declared disaster areas.
A Local Perspective
Just weeks from one of the biggest shipping times for fern growers in Pierson, Florida, right before Valentine’s Day, Linnie Richardson recalls the hard time her family had during the extended freeze. Leather leaf fern, which is cut and shipped to florists to use in holiday bouquets, struggled to survive.
Farmers were out night after night running sprinklers in the fields of fern to protect their crop.
“I remember only turning the diesel pumps off long enough to check the water and oil levels and then cranking them back up immediately to make sure the ice stayed on the fern to insulate it,” said Richardson, a fourth-generation grower in the small Central Florida town. “You can’t turn the pumps off until the temperatures are 38 to 40 degrees when you have heavy ice production because the weight of the ice destroys the plant.”
Although the ice casing keeps the current crop from freezing, it’s a double-edged sword. The icy buildup can destroy the young tender new growth just beneath the bigger plant and will in return impact the Mother’s Day crop. Richardson also recalled running the pumps for the sprinklers so they would hit the citrus trees.
She said that following spring, they had to almost replant the entire crop. The freeze split the bark of thousands of trees, causing catastrophic damage to hundreds of acres locally. This is something many in the agriculture business deal with every time the threat of freezing conditions is in the forecast.