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Growers, distributors scurrying to prepare for Hurricane Irma

After tearing through several Caribbean islands, leaving death and destruction in her path, Hurricane Irma was on course to cut a swath through Florida, Georgia and possibly into the Carolinas.

On the morning of Sept. 7, the Weather Channel reported that the storm was responsible for the death of 10 people in the Caribbean, and the amount of damage and destruction — although far from being assessed — would be massive when final tallies are done. It also stated that the eye of the storm may drift east or west by as much as 50 miles before making landfall, which could make a difference in the possible damage it wreaks. But regardless of where it lands, Florida is expected to bear the brunt of it.

Florida’s produce distributors are preparing to batten down, but made strong efforts before they’re forced to close.

“We reached out to all our customers — both retail and foodservice operators — as soon as we knew we’d be in the path of the storm to suggest they take two or more extra days of product supplies in order to assure they’ll have ample stock for their customers,” said Charlie Eagle, director of business development for Southern Specialties, headquartered in Pompano Beach. “And we advised them that we plan to be closed on Monday. We plan to cease operations on Friday afternoon in Pompano.”

He added that customers farther north are also pulling more product than normal in expectation that they may experience closures as well.

Southern Specialties weathered Hurricane Wilma in 2005, experiencing significant losses. They put the experience to good use in planning for potential future storms.

“Today, we are proactive in not only contacting our customers to encourage them to take additional product, but also to secure secondary locations as an added step in reducing our potential losses,” Eagle noted. “And we’ve added additional generators to ensure that we stay operational in the case of a power outage.”

The company also takes to heart the needs of its staff.

“Our primary concern is our team and their families,” stressed Eagle. “We are working with those team members who have special needs in their families. And we have brought pallets of water into our facility for them to take home. We are cognizant of the stress they face, as well as the potential damage that may occur.”

Steve Veneziano, vice president of Oakes Farms in Immokalee, FL, said many of the company’s customers were stocking up heavily during the week.

“Many have backed off heavily from weekend orders because they fear they’ll have to close for as long as Saturday through next Tuesday,” he said. “Our foodservice customers in Georgia have been ramping orders up strongly in the past few days because they expect strong sales over the next five or six days due to so many evacuations from Florida.”

Orders, he added, have been especially heavy on tomatoes, green Bell peppers and Jalapeño peppers.

The company had about 5 million young plants in various stages of growth in greenhouses in Florida when the threat of the storm was announced. Company owner Alfie Oakes took immediate action and has been moving as many of the plants as possible to safer locations.

“It’s pretty scary to have the transplants in the greenhouses,” said Veneziano. “If they decide to cut the plastic to prevent the greenhouses from being blown down, it could flood all the plants.”