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FAST FORWARD : A Second Look at Some of the People Who Made News in 1991 : Recovery: Tulare County was devastated when a storm wiped out the citrus crop last winter, but the Freeze Relief Task Force kept families going. Now, the gold is back.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Instead of the 400 people who showed up each day last spring for family food boxes at the Lindsay-Strathmore Coordinating Council, the numbers have dwindled to 137 or 90--even 50 on a really good day.

“Things are getting better,” says Paulina Galvez, who works for the council.

“A lot of families might still need the help, but as soon as they start work, they’re so happy, they stop coming. Sometimes they even come in and tell us they won’t be coming anymore.”

On Dec. 20, 1990, a storm called the Arctic Express swept through California, its freezing temperatures wiping out the winter citrus crop in the San Joaquin Valley’s orange belt. The fabled “gold in the trees,” which draws workers from Mexico and Central America, lay rotting on the ground. Trees were damaged; there would be no summer crop of valencias, and many feared permanent damage to entire orchards.

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Unemployment, chronically high, climbed to 50%. Foreclosure notices went out, and people were evicted. Some seasonal workers packed up and returned to Mexico or went looking elsewhere; the permanent labor force tried to hold out. Working-class people proud to have never asked for a handout took a deep breath and got in line at the soup kitchen, the distribution center, the emergency relief window.

And Tulare County--along with the rest of the hard-hit valley--dug in.

President Bush never did declare the national disaster that people requested to make the area eligible for federal funds, and the state did not agree to a quarter-cent sales tax hike. But some outside help came. The government provided surplus food from Operation Desert Storm, and extended unemployment benefits and emergency funds for utility bills. Church groups, food banks, organizations and individuals helped with food, money and clothing.

But the greatest help came from the people of Tulare County. The Freeze Relief Task Force formed and organized the efforts.

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“We said, ‘We’re gonna to do this!’ and it worked,” says Sandy Beals, task-force member and director of FoodLink, a countywide food bank.

But it was almost a yearlong holding pattern as people looked with hope and dread toward November and the fate of the navel orange crop.

Hope prevailed.

“We started picking Nov. 1, and the plant started running Nov. 12,” recalls Joe LoBue, director of marketing for LoBue Bros. Inc., one of the town of Lindsay’s 14 packing companies. The plant had been down to a skeleton crew of about 15 for most of the year. Now there are 375, LoBue says, and he expects soon to be up to full capacity of 450.

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“About 75% of our field crew is back, and we’re hiring new picking crews now,” LoBue says. Some of his workers have been with the company for years, even decades.

The trees are yielding about 85% of normal, and LoBue has already shipped half a million cartons of navel oranges. (The county average is 50 million cartons of navel oranges yearly; last year’s export was 14 million.) It looks equally promising for next summer’s Valencia crop, growers say.

John Maynard, Lindsay’s mayor and manager of the Western Auto franchise, sees plenty of hopeful signs but says they have not yet been reflected at the cash registers: “If we have oranges in our community and the citrus industry is not blown away by bad weather or market conditions, we’ll be back to square one.”

At the County Extension program in Visalia, farm adviser Manual Jimenez says he has spoken with many families of farm laborers. “It seems they’re earning less money, not working as many hours, but they’re happy to be back at work. Their attitude seems to be, ‘It’s not great, but it’s good enough.’ ”

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Enough can be relative in a community on a first-name basis with hardship.

“There are families who say they have enough, but I have my suspicions, so I pay them a visit,” says the coordinating council’s Galvez. She offers an all-too-typical example of her house calls: “There were nine people sleeping on the floor, and all they had were three blankets.”

So she is trying to collect sheets and blankets now, distributing them by lottery.

“I never have enough for all,” she says, “and I feel so bad making choices. I give them numbers and draw.”

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