U.S. cold weather
Ice forms on the shore of the East River due to unusually low temperatures caused by a Polar Vortex in New York January 7, 2014. Photo by Reuters
Text size
AP
A Crestwood motorist tries to get his car moving along Watson Road in St. Louis as heavy snow falls on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014. Photo by AP

A deep freeze spread from the U.S. Midwest to the East and South, setting record low temperatures from Boston to Birmingham, and leaving 21 people dead, authorities said. The Midwest and the East experienced temperatures colder than much of Antarctica.

In a phenomenon that forecasters said is actually not all that unusual, all 50 states saw freezing temperatures at some point Tuesday. That included Hawaii, where it was 18 degrees (-8 Celsius) atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano.

The big chill started in the Midwest over the weekend, and by Tuesday, it covered about half of the country. In New York City, the high was expected to be 10 degrees (-12 Celsius); in Boston, around 18 degrees (-8 Celsius).

Across the South, records were shattered like icicles. Birmingham, Alabama, dipped to a low of 7 degrees (-14 Celsius), breaking the record of 11 degrees (-11.7 Celsius) set in 1970. Atlanta saw a record low of 6 degrees (-14.5 Celsius). Nashville, Tennessee, got down to 2 degrees (-16.7 Celsius), and Little Rock, Arkansas, fell to 9 degrees (-13 Celsius). It was just 1 degree (-17 Celsius) at Washington Dulles International airport, eclipsing the 1988 mark of 8 degrees (-13 Celsius).

The deep freeze dragged on in the Midwest as well, with the thermometer reaching minus 12 (-24 Celsius) overnight in the Chicago area and 14 below (-25.5 Celsius) in suburban St. Louis. More than 500 passengers were stranded overnight on three Chicago-bound trains that were stopped by blowing and drifting snow in Illinois. Food ran low, but the heat stayed on.

The cold turned deadly as authorities reported at least 21 cold-related deaths across the country since Sunday, including seven in Illinois, and six in Indiana. At least five people died after collapsing while shoveling snow, while several victims were identified as homeless people who either refused shelter or didn't make it to a warm haven soon enough to save themselves from the bitter temperatures.

The worst should be over in the next day or two. Warmer weather — at least, near or above freezing — is in the forecast for much of the stricken part of the country.

On Tuesday, many schools and day care centers across the eastern half of the U.S. were closed so that youngsters wouldn't be exposed to the dangerous cold. Officials opened shelters for the homeless and anyone else who needed a warm place.

With the bitter cold slowing baggage handling and aircraft refueling, airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights in the U.S., bringing the four-day total to more than 11,000.

In New Orleans, which reported a low of 26 degrees (-3 Celsius), hardware stores ran out of pipe insulation. A pipe burst in an Atlanta suburb and a main road quickly froze over. In downtown Atlanta, a Ferris wheel near Centennial Olympic Park that opened over the summer to give riders a bird's eye view of the city closed because it was too cold.

Farther south in Pensacola, Florida, a Gulf Coast city better known for its white sand beaches than frost, streets normally filled with joggers, bikers and people walking dogs were deserted early Tuesday. A sign on a bank flashed 19 degrees (-7 Celsius). Patches of ice sparkled in parking lots where puddles froze overnight.

An estimated 190 million people were subjected to an icy blast, caused by a kink in the "polar vortex," the strong winds that surround the North Pole.