A late-winter storm that chilled chickens in three states has helped push egg prices nationwide to five-year highs just before the usual Easter egg rush, according to industry officials.

A snow and ice storm that socked Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri on March 5-6 destroyed hundreds of chicken houses and knocked out power lines, leaving many hens out in the cold, said Harold Ford, executive vice president of the Southeastern Poultry and Egg Association in Decatur, Ga."They got chilled," Ford said. "In cold weather hens just do not lay as many eggs as they do in normal spring weather. They just don't eat and they don't lay."

Ken Klippen, vice president of United Egg Producers in Atlanta, Ga., estimated losses in the three states at between 1.5 and 2 million layers, worth about $55 million. The losses represented just under 1 percent of the nation's layers, he said.

For every 1 percent change in supply, there generally is a corresponding 5 percent change in price, Klippen said.

Wholesale prices in New York, considered an industry benchmark, rose to 98 cents a dozen for Grade A large white eggs from 90 to 92 cents before the storm hit, said Jack Ross, an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington. Prices in mid-February averaged about 66 cents a dozen, he said.

The three states have about 7.5 percent of the nation's 230 million layers, Klippen said. Arkansas, with 9 million layers, suffered the greatest losses in the storm.

The damage came at a time when egg prices already were rising because of traditionally heavy holiday demand, he said.

"Those people who lost chickens now lost them at the peak season. This was the only positive point in profitabity that we've had in months," Klippen said. "For some of them it was most devastating."

Egg prices already have been inflated somewhat in response to an industry contraction.