PORTERVILLE — Here in the citrus belt of the San Joaquin Valley, they call it nature's invisible disaster--a December, 1990, freeze that devastated the orange and lemon harvest and brought the farming communities of Porterville and Lindsay to their knees.
The already high unemployment rate jumped to 23%. Out-of-work pickers, packers and truck drivers couldn't buy groceries, much less pay utility bills swollen by 14 days of subfreezing temperatures.
Silently, the freeze exacted a $1.5-billion toll.
"We didn't make the national news. We didn't have a fire or flood or earthquake or hurricane," Mayor Judi Gibbons said. "People were suffering, but the nation didn't understand. It wasn't something you could make pictures out of."
Like the young navel orange trees left for dead that winter but budding new shoots each year since, this community of 34,000 has slowly come back. Through small-town ingenuity and charity and aggressive economic development, Porterville has managed to stave off a deeper crisis.
Its resiliency has not gone unnoticed. For the second straight year, the National Civic League has named Porterville a finalist in the All-America City Award competition. Winners will be announced in Oakland next month.
"It's a symbolic award. No cash or anything like that," said Manny Azevedo, who will give a three-minute presentation to judges on a food bank run entirely by senior citizens. "But it would mean a lot to people who have given a lot here."
Even before the record cold snap, this Tulare County town knew it was living dangerously. With an economy driven by the single engine of citrus farming, Porterville was always one drought or one hailstorm away from catastrophe.
Diversification began in the 1950s with the opening of a state hospital, which remains the area's biggest non-agricultural employer. Then came several attempts to exploit the community's location--158 miles northeast of Los Angeles at the base of the Sierra Nevada. But the slogan "Gateway to the Sequoias" only seemed to underscore that Porterville was a restroom on the road to mountain bliss.
It wasn't until Wal-Mart located its West Coast distribution center here in 1991--25 acres of warehouse under one roof--that retailers began to take heed. In quick succession came a Mervyn's and Target and Big 5 Sporting Goods and Wal-Mart store.
The ribbon cuttings, while a source of great pride, were little salve in the midst of a freeze-related depression. Crop loss alone was $300 million. Fifty citrus packing plants employing more than 5,000 full-time and seasonal workers had shut down. In a region where wealth has always concentrated in a few grower hands and the unemployment rate hovered at 16%, the effect was immediate, if not always visible.
More than 30,000 weeks of unemployment were claimed in the three months after the freeze, compared to 1,600 weeks in the same period a year before. Food lines quadrupled. Hardest hit were Latino farm workers, who account for a quarter of the population.
"Many of the farm workers were too proud for handouts," said Jim Vagim, a car dealer who converted his warehouse into a food distribution center that served more than 5,000 meals. "They'd park their cars a block or two away and send in their children to eat."
Helping Hand, another volunteer group, served nearly 90,000 meals that first year. Churches raised $76,000 to help laid off workers pay their utilities. Dozens of seniors calling themselves the Porterville Gleaners marched into the fields with ladders and gleaned what they could from the blackened trees. Bartering with food banks around the state, they traded oranges and lemons for 25-pound bags of groceries.
Mayor Gibbons, who owns Brides 'n Belles on Main Street, began outfitting weddings on credit. "People get married, crisis or not, so we fronted the money, sometimes $500 and $600," she said. "And all of them paid. I never lost 5 cents to any one of them."
Last year, sales tax revenues hit a new high: $3 million. Vagim is selling more used cars than ever. The Gutierrez family opened a fancy new Mexican restaurant on Main Street called The Mission. Sears has returned. Wal-Mart's 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse now employs more than 1,000 people. And huge houses continue to be built here, some by Southern California dairy farmers who have moved operations to this side of the mountain.
But times remain lean. A large market and Chevy dealership have closed. Not everyone loves the new Wal-Mart store, which has snatched away business from Porterville Hardware, a downtown mainstay, for one.
At the Tulare County Lemon Assn. packing and shipping plant, manager Alex Teague says it will take another five good seasons before the grower cooperative rebounds completely from the "lost year" of the freeze. And $5-an-hour jobs continue to be lost to mechanization.
A few weeks ago, as testimony to the freeze's far reach, the Porterville Gleaners opened a new food bank warehouse built with $115,000 in local funds. The program has grown each year since 1991 and now handles 2.5 million tons of culled fruits and vegetables that it barters with food banks in Oakland and Santa Maria and Bakersfield.
"We're not a Mickey Mouse operation anymore," said the 76-year-old Azevedo. "We take care of a lot of people, about 1,200 families a week. I guess that's the thing about the freeze. We've always been a tightknit community. Now we're even tighter."