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Winter is here, Florida.
The brutal winter storm that lashed the eastern United States did not spare the southernmost continental state on Wednesday.
Snow fell on Tallahassee for the first time in three decades. Icy roads reached as far south as Lake City, according to 10Weather WTSP, and portions of Interstate 10 had to be closed. Orlando’s aquatic theme parks also shut down. Freeze warnings were declared for parts of inland Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.
There were even snowmen — well, at least one, built in Tallahassee by Michigan transplant Laura Donaven that stood a whole 6 inches tall.
“It was very neat to see. It had been since the early ’90s since we got any snow like that,” said the 41-year-old hair salon owner.
Still, she found other uses for the snow: “I made a snowball and threw it at my dad.”
In a sense, the Tampa Bay region had an easy time of it. The highs were in the mid 50s — until you stepped outside and felt that cold morning rain and those freezing, feels-like-the-low-40s wind gusts.
“When it’s this cold, even a light breeze,” National Weather Service meteorologist Stephen Shiveley said. “You will feel it.”
Authorities prepared for the cold and warned bay area residents to do the same. 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Bobby Deskins said the coldest night of the week could be tonight, with Friday night a close rival. Thankfully, he said, the water from Wednesday’s rain has evaporated, so icy roads are not a local concern.
Pinellas opened its cold shelters Wednesday, joining Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. Residents were warned to protect their plants and keep their pets indoors, and shelters were seeking donations of blankets, sleeping bags, jackets, gloves and other winter essentials.
Swaths of the state were under freeze watches and warnings, including parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, where temperatures could drop between 28 and 32 degrees.
Farmers will spend the next three nights keeping an eye on their crops as temperatures hover near freezing through Saturday morning.
At Tampa International Airport, a high of 56 was reported Wednesday; the low was 43 with a half inch of rain. The problem was wind gusts of 20 to 25 mph.
The threat of bad weather prompted Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa to close at 1 p.m. Wednesday, the zoo announced on Twitter. It is expected to reopen today at 9:30 a.m. Busch Gardens in Tampa planned to close at 6 p.m. Wednesday due to the falling temperatures.
Today’s weather will offer a bit of a reprieve: no rain, and the wind gusts will fall to 6 to 11 mph. It won’t warm up until Sunday afternoon, when temperatures are expected to reach the high 60s.
The consolation for bay area residents was that Wednesday was much worse further north: Tallahassee woke up to snow and sleet Wednesday, the first significant accumulation of frozen precipitation since Dec. 22-23, 1989.
It was a brief phenomenon. After about 10 minutes of puffy flakes, the sleet and flurries melted quickly. Thankfully, Tallahassee’s morning traffic was significantly lighter due to weather warnings and school closings. Florida State University and Florida A&M University also closed for the day.
Ice posed a danger on roads all over the Interstate 10 region. Hazardous conditions caused an early morning accident that forced the closure of an I-10 flyover at Thomasville Road and U.S. 90. State highway officials closed parts of I-10 between Capital Circle to Live Oak in Suwannee County due to ice on the roadway.
In Central Florida, the state’s largest theme parks announced that water attractions such as Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay and SeaWorld’s Aquatica closed Wednesday because of the cold snap.
So it was cold in Tampa Bay, but it could have been worse. Lower temperatures and Wednesday’s rains would have been an even worse combination.
“We definitely fared a lot better than people in the Panhandle and North Florida,” Shiveley said. “But drop the temperatures another 10 degrees and it could have been a lot messier.”
Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee co-bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.