It is a typical mild winter day in central Florida: temperatures in the comfortable 60s, palm fronds clicking in the breeze, everyone in shirt-sleeves. Except, that is, on a patch of ground in front of Minneola's stucco city hall and at a local park.
Here the scenes the past two days have looked like something out of St. Paul, Minn. – a sort of mini winter carnival. Town fathers have handed out hot chocolate. Ice pyramids were erected on the grass. Most conspicuous, rows of ice are mounded everywhere like frozen hedges. "That's wild," says Omar Maldonado, a resident of nearby Ocoee, Fla., looking at one of the wintry tableaux.
It turns out the ice is free. It is a mere shaving from 9 million pounds left over from an emergency state stockpile.
Call it part of one of the country's biggest civic iceboxes. After the headstrong hurricane season of 2005, the state began storing bags of ice in anticipation of an active year in 2006.
It never happened. Consequently, the state is still the not-so-proud owner of two warehouses of bagged ice.
Tired of paying the cost of storing it, officials have been trying to give it away – to municipalities, government agencies, nonprofit groups – just about anyone. The only problem: You have to be able to haul away 1,800 pounds of it, the amount that fits on one pallet.
In other words, the state didn't want people showing up with their styrofoam coolers and iced tea glasses, unless they happened to be driving a forklift.
Enter David Yeager, the exuberant mayor of Minneola. He decided to take 15 truckloads and break it down so local residents could cart away what they wanted. He had some delivered to city hall here and the rest to a local park.
A man with a seemingly perpetual grin, he saw it as a way to help local residents and generate a little klieg-light publicity for this rapidly growing commuter town near Orlando.
"This is good ice," he says as people stop by to pick up bags, some excited to have the handout, others seeing it as another sign of colossal government waste.
States usually aren't in the business of playing Home Depot: They don't store much in the way of emergency supplies, particularly when it comes to perishable goods. But Florida, which suffers its share of destructive weather, does salt away a few things.
The state maintains a stockpile of 265 truckloads of bottled water, for instance, and another 14 truckloads of tarps. These proved indispensible after the recent series of tornadoes devastated central Florida.
The state also stores generator cable and some supplies authorities don't talk about for homeland security reasons.
After the record-breaking hurricane season two years ago, ice became a prime focus – for good reason. Ice is needed to prevent food and medications from spoiling, not to mention keeping people and drinking supplies cool.
It can help with tempers, too: Scrums broke out in 2005 after aid agencies were unable to deliver enough water and ice immediately to displaced residents, who queued up in the hot sun for hours for supplies.
"Ice really becomes a critical component to make sure people are safe," says Jack Morgan, CEO of a Red Cross chapter in Florida.
Officials with the Florida Division of Emergency Management decided they'd be prepared for the 2006 hurricane season. So they wedged 9 million pounds of ice, in bags ranging from five to 40 pounds, in two massive cold-storage warehouses, one in Jacksonville and the other in the central Florida town of Bartow.
Fortunately, no hurricanes decided to show up. But the state was stuck paying $90,000 a month to cool something that no one seemed to need. Worse, ice spoils like other perishables – it has a shelf life of only six to 10 months.
Florida is hardly alone in this predicament, of course. In response to hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought vast quantities of ice. It ended up having to store 65 million excess pounds in a dozen warehouses from Maine to Idaho.
Florida, for its part, seems to have learned an expensive lesson: In the future, officials plan to buy ice only in the days leading up to the arrival of a hurricane. "We really don't need to be storing ice at the state level," says Chuck Hagan, state logistics chief for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Emergency management officials have been getting some people to take the cubes off their hands. In Pembroke Pines, near Miami, the annual Maroone Hispanic Fest picked up three truckloads. The ice will be used to chill food and drinks. Estimated savings to organizers: $1,500.
In nearby Hollywood, Fla., a Catholic elementary school took 40,000 pounds for use at a local carnival. "We were blessed last year [with no hurricanes] and didn't need to have the ice," says Judy Skehan, the school's assistant principal, who estimates the school will save $1,200 in costs on the carnival.
The state has received other requests for pallets from the Florida National Guard, an aquatic center, a renaissance festival, and a Greek orthodox church.
Even with the interest, though, the state will still have huge quantities left over. It's planning to lay the remaining inventories out to melt under the Florida sun – at least getting the benefit of recharging some underground aquifers.
Mayor Yeager is trying to do his part in chipping away at the excess ice with a combination of selflessness and showmanship. An earnest man with a shock of brown hair, Yeager dispatched employees from his own environmental business to unload all the ice. He says he couldn't resist something that was free.
Yet the stunt may also bring the city some recognition. Minneola recently annexed 1,740 acres of land, and town officials are eager to foster growth in this community of undulating hills, which used to be dimpled with orange groves but are increasingly succumbing to subdivisions. Yeager eventually envisions building a minor league baseball stadium and establishing a downtown district.
At city hall, the ice was available day and night for anyone who wanted it. Whatever was unclaimed would, like the state's excess supplies, be left out to melt. City officials estimate if there were 15 truckloads of ice left over it would generate as much as 70,000 gallons of water for the area aquifer, which is badly in need of replenishment.
Mary Flores, a homemaker who just moved to the area with her husband from California, welcomed the giveaway. "Some people can't even afford to have their water turned on," says Ms. Flores, who planned to pick up a few bags with her husband. "I'm sure it will help a lot of people."
Mr. Maldonado, a massage therapist, was going to stock up on supplies for the smoothie machine at the gym where he works. "It's actually a good thing we had a surplus this year," he says.
But Thomas Kelley, a retiree from Georgia with a home in nearby Clermont, saw the rows of ice on the lawn as an example of government ineptitude – more waste of taxpayers' dollars.
"I think it's a cryin' shame that our ... government has paid this much money to store this ice for this long," he says.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kelley was picking up 10 bags for the ice chest on his front porch. And at least one person was there to help him load his truck – Mayor Yeager.
• Jared Flesher contributed to this report.