Southwest Daily News - Sulphur, LA
  • Freezing blast fills shelters, threatens crops

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  • Homeless shelters filled and farmers worried about filling the Valentine's Day demand for chocolate-dipped strawberries as an arctic blast of cold air covered Louisiana.
    Much of the state was under a hard freeze warning Thursday. But it will probably be the winter's last really cold spell in Louisiana — arctic air doesn't usually get this far south this late, National Weather Service meteorologist Gavin Phillips said.
    "It's going to be a short-lived cold spell. We're going to go into a spring-type regime next week," with temperatures into the 60s and even 70s by midweek, he said.
    For strawberry farmers, that could be too late for good sales going into Valentine's Day. Their plants are covered against the cold, which also delays blooming and ripening.
    "It's definitely going to affect the picking for Valentine's Day. All the berries are covered up," said Kevin Liuzza of Independence. "We've got to see what tonight's going to do. Until this week, we've been very fortunate about saving the crop that's on the bushes. We hope we will tonight, too."
    Temperatures in the area hit the low 20s twice earlier this year: Jan. 13-14 and 22-23.
    All that cold means fewer early berries than usual, plus higher expenses for farmers, said Regina Bracy, of the LSU AgCenter's Hammond Research Station.
    "It costs the farmers more to produce the crop because they're having to apply these cold-protection measures. They have to pay people to cover them, and remove (covers) to pick or apply fertilizer or pesticide," she said.
    Hammond, Ponchatoula and Independence, where most of the state's strawberry farms are located, haven't been as cold as northern Tangipahoa Parish, Bracy said.
    "So they haven't seen as much damage, but are seeing delay. They may be missing out on the good price they get for early berries," she said. "That means when the berries do start coming in, there may be a real abundance. That may drive the price down."
    Shelters from Shreveport to New Orleans were filling as cold turned colder.
    "It looks like we missed the big storms, thank goodness. They went north of us," said Deacon Ray Tabor of Summer Grove Baptist Church in Shreveport. Parts of Arkansas got 2 feet of snow, but the Shreveport area didn't get any.
    Still, the past three nights were cold enough to bring in more than 40 homeless people a night to the church's new shelter, and more were likely Thursday night, Tabor said.
    He said church members also have provided money to feed them all, to buy bus tickets for several people who had families out of state, and even tools to get a homeless plumber back to work.
    Page 2 of 2 - Nearly 300 miles southeast in New Orleans, the 96-bed Ozanam Inn set up 50 cots Monday to take in homeless men needing shelter from the cold. Monday and Tuesday night, 39 showed up. The total was up to 46 Wednesday night, and executive director Biaggio DiGiovanni said he expected all 50 to be full Thursday night.
    "We don't let them sleep on the floor. It's very uncomfortable and gets too cold," DiGiovanni said.
    Other shelters in the city also set up extra cots as part of New Orleans' "freeze plan."

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