Monday, January 15, 2007

Damage not always visible from the outside

It's the type of disaster that doesn't make for dramatic footage on the evening news. But the freezing temperatures gripping much of the West have a stranglehold on California's citrus groves and others vulnerable food crops.

Much of California, particularly the areas where agriculture and people are centered, rarely experience prolonged periods of freezing temperatures. It's part of what makes the state such an ordinarily ideal place to farm, and a nice place for the thin-skinned among us to live (or spend our winter months).

But when cold hits, it can destroy crops, like oranges and lemons, and wipe out the livelihoods of growers, farmworkers and packing plant workers alike.

The devastation occurring right now in California isn't as immediately visible as that wrought by a hurricane, flood or tornado.

Fruit hanging on trees, to outward appearances, looks normal. However, much of the citrus still hanging on trees in groves through the San Joaquin Valley and even in Southern California will never make it to the grocer's shelf.

Some may get turned into juice, but there isn't much call for orange juice from California. Florida has a virtual lock on that market.

It is in the weeks ahead when people traveling through the citrus groves will notice something amiss. Fruit will begin to accumulate on the ground, left to rot and draw flies.

Back in 1998, when the last major freeze swept through the California citrus belt, a few cold December days rocked many San Joaquin Valley communities. The signs of the disaster were most visible away from the groves in places like the unemployment office, were people with "stable" jobs suddenly found themselves out of work.

There were lines everywhere. People lining up for jobs, lining up for food, lining up for assistance from government agencies and local charities.

At the time of the last big freeze I was editor of a small daily newspaper in the buckle of the California citrus belt, Porterville, Calif. For months the news throughout the paper was dominated by damage estimate and relief efforts to help the hard-working families who suddenly found themselves struggling to keep their families fed, their utilities on and a roof over their heads.

Now, when the memories of that disaster have grown dim by the passing years, the memories, uncertainty and fear for many of those same communities comes flooding back, thank to an Arctic blast of air that refused to go away. And all that occurring just a little more than six months after record heat in July wreaked its own havoc (and more the $1 billion in damage) through the heart of California's farming country.

In the coming days, weeks and months the tallies will be done as to the extent of the damage to crop. But this disaster isn't just about lost oranges and lemons. It's about lost incomes and disappearing jobs too and families wondering how they will feed their children and pay the power bill.

For folks from northern-tier states, they may not have much sympathy for those poor Californians having to endure a few nights below freezing. And they may barely notice that the fruits and vegetable they ordinarily expect to find in their favorite stores' produce sections aren't there. But the devastation California is still enduring is real and about more than a few days of chilly temperatures. It's about lost livelihoods and desperation.

The one positive I saw come out of the freeze of 1998 was that the communities of California's Central Valley came together to help their neighbors through the hardship. I hope that the freeze of 2007 surpassed that event with its outpouring of generosity and support.

You can read updates about the affects of the freeze in California at

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