It wasn’t exactly a snow day.
But Southern California’s six-day cold snap took a surreal turn Wednesday as a rare snowstorm brought snowplows to the canyons above Malibu, left parts of the San Fernando Valley with a white dusting and shut down Interstate 5.
The snow levels plunged well below 1,000 feet in some areas, blanketing the Santa Monica Mountains with snow and leaving streets and lawns in Venice, Westwood and elsewhere on the Westside covered with ice from pea-sized hail.
A stronger than expected low pressure storm system high in the atmosphere turned a merely cold day into one of snow, rain and hail, said Jamie Meier, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The system under normal circumstances would have brought a typical rainstorm through Los Angeles. But the cold snap turned the rain into snow and hail, she said.
“We were expecting a thunderstorm,” Meier said. “The snow levels dropped a bit lower than we were expecting.”
The forecast for today calls for continued chilly temperatures, with lows in the 30s and 40s. Snow levels overnight are expected to hover around 1,500 feet.
Forecasters said that although snow fell in Santa Clarita, Malibu’s hills and parts of the west San Fernando Valley, Westside neighborhoods were more likely to have been hit with a heavy accumulation of irregularly shaped hailstones called graupel that can be confused with snowflakes.
But don’t tell that to Jen Naylor.
She was in Santa Monica when she called her sister in Westwood and could hear her children screaming in the background about white stuff piling up in their backyard.
She raced to the neighborhood off Montana Avenue and found what looked like snow on rooftops as well as on lawns.
Her sister’s children had pulled out their ski gear and were playing in the backyard.
“This was the first time I made a snowman in L.A,” said Naylor, a Los Angeles native. “We used dried cranberry for the eyes and a baby carrot for the nose because it was a baby snowman.”
Westlake Village resident Joy Blanchard and her 16-year-old daughter, Sasha, experienced what forecasters agreed was the real stuff while driving on Kanan Road. She parked her Lexus sport utility vehicle on the side of the road Wednesday afternoon after shopping to take in the snow-capped peaks. They ended up building a small snowman by the side of the road.
“This, like, makes my year,” said Sasha, who had seen snow only once before, on a trip to Mammoth.
Snow and hail were scattered across the Southland, with the worse conditions reported in the western parts of Los Angeles County, from the Grapevine to Castaic, where Interstate 5 was shut down by snow, into parts of the Valley and Westside. It has been at least 18 years since some parts of the West Valley recorded any snow.
The weakening system was moving overnight southeast into Orange County and San Diego, but officials did not expect a repeat of Wednesday’s surprise conditions.
The cold snap across California is blamed for widespread damage to the state’s produce -- mostly notably navel oranges. State agricultural officials continue to tally the price tag from freezing weather in farm areas, and say their worst-case scenario includes possible losses of $1 billion.
At some grocery stores and farmers markets, consumers faced higher fruit and vegetable prices, and the cold felled nursery plants in several counties.
At the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, many produce booths were empty and those that were open posted significantly higher prices. V. Kali of Los Angeles, was buying a 25-pound bag of oranges, which usually costs $8 but Wednesday was $12.50. Loretta Khastoo of Brentwood, had a wheeled cart full of strawberries, tomatoes, a huge Haitian squash and oranges. She said that even beets had gone up in price, to $2 from $1.50 last week.
“I don’t know why beets would be higher,” she said. If prices of oranges rise significantly as expected, “I may not buy oranges.”
The freeze also struck plants at wholesale and retail nurseries, where tender jacaranda trees being bred for market, along with ficus and many varieties of shrubs, succumbed to cold, said Robert Falconer of the California Assn. of Nurseries and Garden Centers.
Home gardeners were also hit, discovering that the plants they had been cultivating with pride in Southern California’s typically moderate climate had weakened or died.
Raun Burnham has watched in the last few days as the succulents at her Atwater Village home withered. In an effort to protect a rare plant in her backyard, each night she placed towels over it. “They are looking very droopy,” she said. “The leaves used to stick straight out and now they look like Salvador Dali’s watches.”
Jose Perez Huizar, who owns a Los Angeles-based gardening service, said he had never seen so many frozen plants, including such popular Southern California plants as bougainvillea and banana trees. The red bananas, he said, won’t recover.
“I’ve been doing gardening work since I was a little kid and I’ve never seen this,” he said.
About 3 p.m. on Sawtelle Boulevard, a lightning bolt crackled through a glowering sky, thunder rumbled and a torrent of pea-sized hail began pelting cars and pedestrians. Joe Hashimoto, owner of Hashimoto Nursery, stood in his chilly office and shook his head in disbelief.
The icy pellets were further injuring his potted bushes and flowering plants. The cold snap had already “melted” 50 flats of impatiens, Hashimoto said, and killed 50 bushes in five-gallon pots and 100 bushes in one-gallon containers. “It was too cold and icy,” Hashimoto said.
But to others, the wintry scene Wednesday seemed magical -- a cityscape so often baked in sun instead covered with glistening white.
Near Mulholland Drive, about two dozen drivers pulled onto the shoulders to delight in the snow.
Among them was Margaret Seyffert, accompanied by her daughter, who moved to Agoura Hills from South Africa a year ago but never expected to be playing in the snow.
“It’s seriously cold,” said her 13-year-old daughter, Laura, after flinging a handful of snow at her best friend, Izzy, 14. “It’s miraculous.”
Times staff writers Laura Greanias, Amanda Covarrubias, Angie Green and Gregory W. Griggs contributed to this report.
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Question: What is the difference between snow and hail?
Answer: Snow is frozen precipitation in the form of white or translucent ice crystals in complex branched hexagonal form. It usually appears clustered into snowflakes. Hail comes from precipitation in the form of balls or irregular pieces of ice, which come in different shapes and sizes. Hail is considered to have a diameter of 5 millimeters or more.
Q: Why do forecasters believe that some Westside residents thought they were seeing snow, when it was really hail?
A: One form of precipitation seen Wednesday was graupel, also known as small hail. It consists of snowflakes or ice crystals and supercooled water droplets frozen together.
Q: Why didn’t weather forecasters predict snow and hail?
A: Wednesday’s weather system would normally have dumped rain on the region. But temperatures were so cold that the rain turned to ice in certain areas.
Source: Weather.com; National Weather Service, Times reporting