Polar freeze settles over U.S. South, East

ATLANTA — Fountains froze over, a 200-foot Ferris wheel in Atlanta shut down, and Southerners had to dig out winter coats, hats and gloves they almost never have to use.

The brutal polar air that has made the Midwest shiver over the past few days spread to the East and the Deep South on Tuesday, shattering records that in some cases had stood for more than a century.

The mercury plunged into the single digits and teens from Boston and New York to Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and Little Rock — places where many people don’t know the first thing about extreme cold.

In fact, the Midwest and the East were colder than much of Antarctica.

In a phenomenon that forecasters said is not all that unusual, all 50 states saw freezing temperatures at some point Tuesday. That included Hawaii, where it was 18 degrees atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island.

The big chill was caused by a kink in the “polar vortex,” the strong winds that circulate around the North Pole. By Tuesday, the icy air covered about half the country, and records were shattered up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

It was 1 degree in Reading, Pa., and 2 in Trenton, N.J. New York City plummeted to 4 degrees; the old record for the date was 6, set in 1896.

Farther south, Birmingham, Ala., dipped to a low of 7, four degrees colder than the old mark, set in 1970. Huntsville, Ala., dropped to 5, Nashville, Tenn., got down to 2, and Little Rock, Ark., fell to 9. Charlotte, N.C., reached 6 degrees, breaking the 12-degree record that had stood since 1884.

The deep freeze dragged on in the Midwest as well, with the thermometer reaching minus 12 overnight in the Chicago area and 14 below in suburban St. Louis. More than 500 Amtrak 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 worst should be over in the next day or two, when the polar vortex is expected to straighten itself out. Warmer weather — that is, 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 the Gulf Coast city of Pensacola, Fla., streets were deserted early Tuesday. A sign on a bank flashed 19 degrees.

The Lower 48 states, when averaged out, reached a low of 13.8 degrees overnight Monday, according to calculations by Ryan Maue of Weather Bell Analytics. An estimated 190 million people in the U.S. were subjected to the polar vortex’s icy blast.

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