(Aug. 17) Florida’s vegetable growers were spared from the wrath of Hurricane Charley, according to state agriculture officials.

The majority of the state’s vegetable acreage in southwest Florida came away unscathed, suffering little or no damage from water or wind.

“It didn’t even look like it rained,” said Tracy Potpolak, manager of Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc., a grower-shipper of tomatoes in Immokalee. “We lost power for six to nine hours from Friday (Aug. 13) into Saturday (Aug. 14) morning, and that was about it.”

Potpolak said the company had delayed its fall planting in anticipation of wet conditions, but others weren’t so lucky.

A few miles away, Danny Rosbough, sales manager of Chapman Fruit Co., Immokalee, reported high levels of rain to the company’s tomato crop that had just been planted.

“We had mainly problems with water,” Rosbough said. “This probably set things back for us a couple of weeks.”

The Sunshine State’s citrus industry was heavily damaged Aug. 13 as the storm with winds as high as 145 mph moved on a northeast course across the state from Fort Myers to Daytona Beach.

The track took Charley across citrus producing regions in DeSoto, Hardee and Polk counties where trees with young fruit were hit hard by the devastating winds.

Those three counties — along with Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties on the southwest coast — account for about 35% of the state’s 800,000 acres of citrus groves.

According to Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest grower organization, some trees were uprooted and small, unripe fruit was blown off others.

Charles Bronson, commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture, toured the damaged area Aug. 16 and said losses to agriculture could be in the millions of dollars.

“There is some serious damage to agriculture, especially to citrus,” Bronson said. “We think the damage is going to be in the hundreds of millions. It could be a billion or more. We just don’t know yet.”

The Orlando-based Florida Agricultural Statistics Service said it would be unable to make a complete assessment for a minimum of two or more weeks.

An early estimate of the statewide damage was “several billion dollars,” said Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, making it the worst disaster in the state since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Twenty-six deaths were attributed to Andrew, which struck Homestead in 1992 and caused $19.9 billion in property losses.

As of Aug. 17, the death toll from Charley was 17.

Florida vegetables avoid Hurricane Charley’s worst
A fence is down and a piece of metal roofing hangs from a receiving area in the packinghouse at Dundee Citrus Growers Association, Dundee, Fla., after Hurricane Charley came through Aug. 13.