(Oct. 31) LAKELAND, Fla. — Damage estimates are starting to arrive as grower-shippers begin their recovery efforts a week after Hurricane Wilma knocked out vegetable and citrus production in the Sunshine State.

Wilma roared through the southern half of the state Oct. 24. Along with the fields it destroyed and saturated, the storm also knocked out power to packing houses in Immokalee, Belle Glade, Homestead and the East Coast growing region.

Florida’s leading citrus trade group has announced orange and grapefruit grower-shippers took a $180 million hit.

In its preliminary estimate, Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual reported Oct. 31 that Wilma took out nearly half of the state’s grapefruit and 13% of the state’s orange crop. Overall, Wilma knocked out 17% of Florida’s citrus crop.

The number is “a very preliminary figure” that could increase if the industry discovers more damage and calculates its losses, said Andy LaVigne, Florida Citrus Mutual’s executive vice president and chief executive officer.

Wilma knocked oranges to the ground in groves from a wide area stretching from the Immokalee and LaBelle growing region to the Indian River area. Fruit was also seen on the ground as far north as Lake Wales.

Florida Citrus Mutual’s estimate doesn’t include tree loss, replanting costs or damages to barns, field facilities, equipment and packing houses. Additionally, as happened in last year’s series of hurricanes, growers expect more fruit to hit the ground in the coming weeks, LaVigne said.

Tomato, cucumber, pepper and squash grower-shippers report Wilma taking out as much as 80% of their production.

When Wilma hit, Homestead growers had been working for two months to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina struck the growing region. Wilma hit the area hard, knocking pole beans to the ground, ripping plastic off of recently planted tomato fields and smashing other crops.

The Miami-Dade County Cooperative Extension estimates Homestead growers suffered $217 million in crop losses with $30 million in structural damages. The area had lost $427 million in crops and $200 millions in building damages after Hurricane Katrina, said Katie Edwards, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau.

“Our growers are resilient,” she said. “They’re disking and are trying to get back on schedule.”

Electrical power was only returned to Homestead Oct. 31, a week after the storm first struck, said Eric Torrese, co-owner of T-N-T Farms Inc., Homestead. T-N-T was only on half-power, Torrese said. The company had an electrician working to keep the lights from flickering.

Belle Glade packers also were cleaning up and surveying crop damage.

Brett Bergman, salesman for Hugh H. Branch Inc., Pahokee, said the company was assessing damage to its sweet corn and green bean crops Oct. 31.

“There has been widespread damage,” he said. “But what’s there and what’s not there, we’re not sure. We have to give the plants a chance to grow out and dry out.”

Wilma ripped off a lot of metal roofs from Belle Glade and Immokalee packing sheds.

Power was restored to Immokalee on Oct. 28, shippers report.