A wintry system that added inches to record snow accumulations in some Northern states sent temperatures plummeting Wednesday in the South, where farmers scrambled to protect their crops.
Temperatures were expected to drop into the 20s and teens in parts of Florida by Thursday morning, following the 30-degree temperatures some northern parts of the state saw Wednesday.
The cold spell could prove devastating to the state's citrus industry, which is the nation's largest and already has suffered from years of disease and hurricanes.
"We will have a lot of growers across the state pulling all-nighters and keeping a close watch on their groves and the temperature," said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for the grower advocacy group Florida Citrus Mutual. "We are cautiously optimistic the industry can weather this cold snap without significant damage."
To help growers, Gov. Charlie Crist has signed an emergency order to relax restrictions on transporting produce.
Race to protect produce
Crops can withstand some cold, but not for long. Thirty-two degrees for four hours will damage an orange, for example, but 28 degrees for that long can actually ruin the tree. Most of the citrus industry is situated south, for this very reason, and in those areas it was not expected to get as cold.
But citrus crops were not the only ones at risk. A broad variety of plants and produce — from broccoli and cabbage in the north to strawberries, tomatoes and corn in the south — are also threatened.
In Louisiana, strawberry farmers covered their crops with material in an attempt to protect them. Peach farmers, however, welcomed the cold, which they say benefits their fruit trees during their period of dormancy.
"The more cold weather we have, the better," said Joe Mitchum, a peach grower outside Ruston, La.
Heavy snow in Northeast
The unusually low temperatures led New Orleans emergency officials to enact a "freeze plan" on New Year's Eve, allowing homeless shelters to temporarily exceed their fire safety capacity. Six shelters took on 700 extra cots between them, boosting the city's capacity of about 400 shelter beds. The plan is expected to last through Thursday.
Following the snowiest December on record, many areas of New Hampshire got about a foot of snow on New Year's Day, with a couple of inches added during the night and a couple more likely Wednesday. Storm totals could reach 18 inches in parts of Maine and New Hampshire and up to a foot in Vermont.
The latest snowfall in New England followed a storm on Monday that made for the area's snowiest December in decades. December's snowfall at Concord, N.H., totaled 44.5 inches, toppling a record of 43 inches that had stood since 1876. Burlington, Vt., got 45.7 inches, far above its 17.2-inch December average, and Portland, Maine, amassed 37.7 inches for its third-snowiest December on record.
"It's been unbelievable. It just keeps coming," said Bill Swain, spokesman for Maine's Sugarloaf USA ski area, which got 70 inches of snow in December.
Schools stay closed
Snow fell Wednesday from Ohio through eastern Kentucky and West Virginia into parts of Virginia and Maryland.
West Virginia's rugged Randolph County got 13 inches, the Weather Service said. As much as 6 inches of snow was possible in higher elevations of eastern Kentucky, although 1 to 2 inches was likely in most areas, the Weather Service said.
At least 40 of West Virginia's 55 counties closed schools Wednesday because of snow-covered roads and freezing temperatures.
Dozens of schools also were closed Wednesday in southeastern Michigan, where a six-hour burst of snow on Tuesday dumped as much as 16 inches north of Detroit, the weather service said.
Power was restored Wednesday to nearly all of the 10,000 customers in Pierpont, Ohio, who were blacked out by a storm that dropped 15 inches of snow on the Cleveland suburb, as well as to about 4,000 customers in the southwest of the state, utility officials said.
Two people were killed in weather related traffic accidents, one each in Ohio and Kentucky, authorities said.