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Flurries in Fla., but No Crop Damage

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ANTHONY MCCARTNEY | January 3, 2008 11:05 PM EST | AP

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TAMPA, Fla. — Flurries fell across the Sunshine State on Thursday, but it appeared that growers were spared the deep freeze they feared would devastate the nation's citrus supply. Meanwhile, California was preparing for a trio of storms expected to unleash heavy rain and snow through the weekend.

A serious freeze in Florida would have meant more damage to the nation's biggest citrus industry, already struggling from years of diseases and hurricanes. Most orange and grapefruit groves are in Central and South Florida, where temperatures hovered in high 20s and low 30s. Trees can be ruined when temperatures fall to 28 degrees for four hours.

"Mother Nature cut us a break this time and now we can continue to produce the quality citrus crop Florida is known for," said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of grower advocacy group Florida Citrus Mutual.

Temperatures were not below freezing for long enough to cause widespread damage to Florida's citrus trees, the group said. In fact, the cold could benefit some growers because it slows down growth and hardens up citrus trees.

Growers had tried to harvest as many mature fruits and vegetables as possible, and tried to protect plants by spraying them with water that freezes, insulating the temperature at 32.

Orange-juice futures for immediate delivery fell 6.2 cents Thursday to settle at $1.4110 a pound on the New York Board of Trade.

Citrus crops were not the only ones at risk in Florida. Around the state, farmers were checking on other crops that Florida produces in the winter for much of the country, including strawberries and vegetables. While citrus was spared, strawberry crops may not have been as fortunate _ and farmers likely would not know the extent of damage for a few days.

"I feel confident we're going to have some damage," said Carl Grooms, a Plant City strawberry farmer. Temperatures in his fields hovered around 27 degrees for several hours overnight.

The cold temperatures did not appear to damage cabbage, broccoli and other crops growing in north Florida. Those are more resistant to freezes, said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Temperatures in many areas of northern Florida dropped into the 20s early Thursday, following the 30-degree temperatures some northern parts of the state saw Wednesday. Snow flurries were reported near the Daytona Beach coastline, the first in Florida since 2006.

In Louisiana, strawberry farmers covered their crops 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.

On the West Coast, three storms were expected to bring more than a foot of rain to mudslide-prone canyons, dump several feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada and buffet the state with hurricane-force winds.

The first in the trio of storms began with sprinkles along the Northern California coast, but the heaviest precipitation was expected Friday night and Saturday. By Thursday afternoon, blustery winds had already forced some Sierra ski resorts to shut down lifts.

Forecasters issued a rare blizzard warning for the Sierra Nevada, with up to 10 feet of snow in higher elevation areas, and predicted 30-foot coastal swells by Saturday.

In Southern California, the wind was expected to be less severe, but homeowners struggling to rebuild after October's wildfires braced for torrential rain that could bring flash floods and mudslides.

Lowland areas around Los Angeles and Orange County were expected to get up to 4 inches by Monday, while mountain areas of Southern California could get 10 inches.

Officials urged homeowners in mudslide-prone areas to stock up on sandbags, monitor the news for evacuations and keep an eye on streams and flood control channels for flooding. Fire stations throughout the region were handing out free sandbags.

Steve Enochs, 52, said he put 80 hay bales around his backyard to keep water away from his home, which sits directly beneath a towering canyon wall that burned during last fall's wildfires.

"I'm worried. See that hill up there? This whole canyon's burned and there's a huge watershed up this canyon that's all burned too," he said. "It's a pretty dangerous threat."

The storm could dampen the San Diego Chargers' playoff game against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. A Qualcomm Stadium official said that if the rain persists, the field will be covered by a tarp until one hour before the game.

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Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus in Santa Ana, Calif., contributed to this report.