HURRICANE CHARLEY Florida's heartland faces agricultural loss after storm
With uprooted orange trees, citrus growers lost their crop for next season.
WAUCHULA, Fla. (AP) -- Hurricane Charley lifted Jay Clark's 3-ton cattle feeder and dumped it a half mile away. It flattened greenhouses belonging to brothers Wayne and Colon Lambert. A packing house for strawberries and watermelon was reduced to a metal skeleton.
The hurricane's northeastern route along U.S. 17 tore through an agricultural swath of the Sunshine State you won't likely see on the Travel Channel. It's a world removed from the Art Deco hotels of Miami Beach, the manicured golf communities along the Gulf Coast and the manufactured fantasies of Orlando's theme parks.
The route is in Florida's heartland -- the state's equivalent to the Midwest. Instead of being the nation's breadbasket, it's the country's orange juice jug. More than a third of the orange juice produced in Florida comes from counties through which Hurricane Charley passed.
"This is the heart of Florida agriculture. It bore the brunt of the storm," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, whose district once encompassed the hurricane-hit counties. Rep. Katherine Harris now represents the area.
The storm on Friday traveled U.S. 17 from Punta Gorda on the Gulf Coast, the hardest-hit area, to Fort Meade, about 65 miles north, before tearing through Polk County to Orlando and Daytona Beach.
The hurricane uprooted hundreds of orange trees along the highway, turned a gas station into dust, tossed power lines and poles across the highway, blew the roofs off countless homes and fruit packinghouses and left Wauchula's Main Street in a bombed-out state of crumbled brick buildings and windowless shops.
Dale Loder, 56, who owns a car restoration business on Main Street, was in his shop when the hurricane lifted the roof off part of the building and scattered its aluminum pieces across the block. He heard the winds slicing the front facade off of a two-story brick-and-limestone building next door, leaving two exposed second-floor rooms where only a Coke machine and a desk remain.
He moved to Wauchula 14 years ago for its affordability. But he's happy the hurricane may give him an opportunity to leave. "I hate this town," Loder said. "There is nothing to do here."
Farming is the most important thing to do here. It is the top employer in an area where pickup trucks rule the road and where in some parts, such as DeSoto County, cattle outnumber humans by a 2-to-1 margin.
But farming has stopped for now as citrus growers cope with a lost crop for next season. Hurricane Charley blew fruit off trees and much of the remaining fruit is too bruised for harvesting. The hurricane also damaged a fertilizer plant and blew away a tractor dealership.
Clark, whose cattle feeder got tossed, owns 1,000 head of cattle and 400 acres of citrus. He believes most of his fruit has been lost.
"Right now we're in a state of shock," Clark said. "Nobody in the industry has seen anything like this."
The swath along U.S. 17 is one of the poorer regions in the state and because of its limited opportunities, it has trouble keeping its children once they're grown. There has been an effort to diversify the economy beyond agriculture in recent years and county officials have supported the construction of a Wal-Mart distribution center in southern DeSoto County.