(Oct. 26) HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Hurricane Wilma knocked down fruit trees and vegetable plants and left millions of southern Floridians, including growing and shipping companies, in the dark and without communication.

The Category 3 hurricane, which made landfall Oct. 24 at Marco Island, south of Naples, strengthened as it moved across the southern part of the state. The storm knocked oranges and avocados off of trees, smashed okra and green bean fields and ripped plastic off of tomato fields as it rolled through LaBelle, Immokalee, Clewiston, Belle Glade and Homestead, before heading to the Atlantic by the end of the day.

According to Lakeland, Fla., newspaper The Ledger, about 5% to 10% of the orange crop was lost. However, sources said more than half of the grapefruit crop could be gone, a projection that would represent the state’s smallest crop in 70 years.

Fears about Wilma taking dead aim at Florida’s vegetables proved prescient, as the storm left many fields in the region underwater and caused as much as 30% fruit drop in grapefruit orchards along the state’s southwestern coast, according to the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

Florida’s citrus production, which suffered as much as 65% losses a year ago in the wake of a parade of hurricanes, suffered some losses in southwestern Florida, said Ray Gilmer, FFVA’s director of public affairs.

“Grapefruit drop is pretty heavy,” he said. “What we’re hearing from LaBelle, southwest of the lake, is that grapefruit, especially in the outer perimeters, had 75% loss on trees but held a lot better in the interior. Valencia crops held out pretty well, about 5% to 10% of that. But early season fresh varieties were a little higher, in terms of loss.”

Three million people were without power along Florida’s east coast from Key West to as far north as Fort Pierce. Cities such as Miami and West Palm Beach declared curfews.

The state’s leading produce growing and trade organizations and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services were unable as of Oct. 25 to estimate the losses caused by Wilma.

That was in part because of the power outages — some areas such as Homestead are expected to remain without power until the start of November — and there were weak communications systems at the growing areas.

“It’s impossible to get a hold of people,” said Mike Stuart, FFVA president. “With power down and no telephones, it’s hard to talk with them.”

Danny Raulerson, director of the association’s Marketing and International Trade Division, was viewing damage in LaBelle and Immokalee on Oct. 25 and reported frequently to Stuart.

Stuart said he was concerned about Wilma affecting the greenhouse plant supply, as grower-shippers need to have enough plants for transplanting. Depending on the conditions of the greenhouses, Stuart said there might not be a sufficient supply of plants for replanting.

Agriculture commissioner Charles Bronson was scheduled to tour Homestead and Labelle on Wednesday to meet with growers and try to assess the hurricane’s agricultural damage.

Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland, the state’s largest citrus trade group, said in a news release that Wilma unleashed its fury on Hendry and Collier counties — two of the state’s largest citrus growing counties.

“Growers in these areas have seen their groves, barns, equipment and homes severely impacted by this storm,” said Andy LaVigne, the group’s executive vice president and chief executive officer. “This will certainly have an impact on their livelihoods and this season’s citrus crop.”

“It is difficult for us to adequately gauge the crop loss at this time due to downed communications lines in that area” LaVigne said. “We hope to have a better assessment by the end of the week.”

Wilma damages Florida crops, knocks out power
Hurricane Wilma left tomatoes floating in flooded fields Oct. 25. In addition, the citrus industry projects a loss of more than half of the state’s grapefruit crop due to the storm.