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Citrus workers bearing brunt of winter freeze

PORTERVILLE, Calif. -- When winter threw a fit last Christmas, slamming through the Central Valley and scaring the life out of the citrus groves, people here were sure 1999 was over.

It was. By the time the ice storms backed off four days later, the orange and lemon crops were nearly gone and so were the picking and packing jobs.The freeze destroyed more than $700 million worth of produce in the Central Valley, the United States' largest food producer, including more than 75 percent of the valley's navel oranges, about 83 percent of its Valencia oranges and virtually all the lemons. The storms left from 14,000 to 28,000 farm workers unemployed.

More than half a year later, with the sunlight pressing on the valley like a hot compress, the damage from the freeze is getting worse. Growers and packing-house owners are up to their chins in debt; workers are up to their eyes in it.

To see the dusty towns in freeze-struck counties like Tulare, which grows many of the nation's navel oranges, one would never know that this nation is richer than ever. People stand in long lines for boxes of free government-issued food -- white cans with big black letters that say "pork," "peaches" and "peas."

Some people are moving from houses and apartments into decrepit trailers, to save on rent. Others have pulled up stakes, packing their children and setting out in pickup trucks to hunt down jobs.

Unemployment is now more than 20 percent countywide -- 50 percent in some rural areas. Most people do not expect life to return to normal again until the navel orange harvest begins in late fall, or to fully recover for at least another year.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has handed out $4.6 million in mortgage and rental assistance to more than 2,700 workers. The Department of Agriculture is providing food to affected workers, as are churches and private food pantries. The state has handed out grants. Small numbers of workers have obtained temporary community-service jobs. But the aid has not reached everyone, or even most people.