Bone-chilling cold weather arrived on the East Coast yesterday, abruptly ending what had been a balmy December along the Atlantic at the same time that officials in the West reported a "killer freeze" had devastated large portions of California's $8 billion fruit and vegetable crop.

In California, Joe Bandy, a regional coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture, said a rare December cold snap with freezing temperatures destroyed most of the state's navel orange crop and ruined citrus and vegetable fields as far south as San Diego. "We're having the reverse trend of what you guys {in the East} are having," he said.

But typically cold December weather descended on the East yesterday, hitting cities that earlier in the week had reported record-high December temperatures.

After a sharp plunge into the teens last night, temperatures in the Washington area were expected to rise slowly during the next three days. Today's high is expected to be in the mid-30s under clear, sunny skies. {Story, Page A16.}

The same bluster that roared into the Washington area early yesterday hit the rest of the East. Atlanta, which reported a record high 73 degrees on Sunday, had a temperature of 26 at 9 a.m. yesterday, with colder weather expected during the night. New York hit a record-high 63 at 6 a.m. yesterday, but five hours later it was 43 with the mercury continuing downward.

Forecasters said the cold will remain over the East during the Christmas holidays after bringing snow flurries yesterday from Ohio to northern New England.

The Associated Press said authorities were blaming at least 79 deaths on the cold. Most were traffic deaths attributed to accidents on icy roads, but other fatalities, including one in southern California, were due to hypothermia, storms and fires from faulty heaters, the news service said.

From San Francisco to Salt Lake City, residents awoke yesterday to discover that the cold had frozen and burst water pipes. Police in San Francisco stopped responding to the calls after they had logged 500, a spokesman said.

"I'm insane. We've had non-stop calls all morning," Eric Yost, a Salt Lake City public utilities dispatcher, told the Associated Press. "Basically, people don't believe that if you leave a little water running in a tap, the line won't freeze." Santa Cruz County, Calif., officials declared a state of emergency after hundreds of residents were reported going without water due to frozen pipes.

Higher prices to consumers are almost certain to result from the three nights of rare freezing weather that hit California's two prime agricultural regions, the fertile San Joaquin Valley in central California and the Imperial Valley in the south.

"This is way worse than I've ever seen," Bakersfield-area grower John Slikker Jr. said. "Yesterday, we cut these oranges in half. . . . It was just like cutting through a Popsicle."

The cold weather also caused considerable damage to crops in Texas and Arizona, according to officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture here. They said it probably would be later this week before they could calculate a dollar estimate of the crop damage in Arizona, Texas and California.

The heaviest damage appeared to have been in the San Joaquin Valley. Bandy said it may take years for citrus farmers to recover from the damage. County governments in the valley were expected to begin seeking disaster aid declarations during the holidays to enable farmers there to gain federal relief, he said.

Dave Carman of the National Weather Service described the California weather as "freeze-of-the-century stuff. This is probably the second-coldest freeze of the century. We are dealing with extreme record cold," he told the Associated Press.

Temperatures throughout the San Joaquin Valley dropped below 20 degrees from Friday night through Sunday night. Citrus crops typically are damaged by any sustained temperature below 28 degrees, and officials said the valley appeared to have had 12 to 15 hours of sustained sub-freezing weather.

"I think you're looking at losses of 80 to 85 percent of the citrus in the San Joaquin Valley," Bandy said.

The cold was so pronounced that he said experts were fearful that entire trees, as well as their fruit, and the "fruiting wood" on many others would be destroyed, causing production to lag for years.

Damage to vegetables -- lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, avocado and artichoke crops -- grown in central and southern California was reported "spotty" but widespread. "Some fields appear to have been damaged while other fields just a few miles away were unscathed by the record cold, Bandy said.

The forecast for the San Joaquin Valley was for a slight warming last night and this morning -- into the low and mid-20s.

The cold was causing problems in urban California as well. Los Angeles stores were reported besieged by a last-minute holiday rush of shoppers seeking heavy coats, an item many stores there do not regularly stock.

Hot tubs were reported frozen throughout the Los Angeles area, and ice formed on palm trees.