‘Polar vortex’ spreads to southern and eastern parts of the US, breaking temperature records

January 07, 2014

The so-called “polar vortex” of dense, frigid air that dropped temperatures in some parts of the country to record lows is now spreading to southern and eastern parts of the U.S., shattering more temperature records, forcing flights to be canceled and keeping many schools and businesses shuttered.

Temperatures on Tuesday morning were already at 8 degrees in Atlanta and 6 degrees below zero at a remote weather station in the north Georgia mountains — the coldest temperatures in the state for years. Temperatures hit lows in parts of West Virginia not felt for 25 years, while the extreme cold in Virginia beat record lows that had stood since the late 1950s. The National Weather Service said the mercury bottomed out at 3 degrees before sunrise at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshal International Airport, with a wind chill of minus 16.

New York City’s Central Park broke a 118-year-record Tuesday morning when the temperature there dropped to 4 degrees. It’s previous record of 6 degrees had stood since 1896, according to MyFoxNY.com.

Monday’s subzero temperatures also smashed records in Chicago, which set a record for the date at minus 16, and Fort Wayne, Ind., where the mercury fell to 13 below. Records also fell in Oklahoma and Texas, and wind chills across the region were 40 below and colder. Officials in states like Indiana already struggling with high winds and more than a foot of snow urged residents to stay home if they could.

“The cold is the real killer here,” Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said Monday as he asked schools and businesses to remain closed another day. “In 10 minutes you could be dead without the proper clothes.”

Forecasters said some 187 million people in all could feel the effects of the “polar vortex” by the time it spreads across the country. Tennessee utility officials on Tuesday braced for near-record power demand, while Ohio prepared for its coldest temperatures in decades.

Wind chill warnings stretched as far south as Florida, where cold weather shelters opened up from St. Petersburg to Pensacola on Monday.

At the Water Front Rescue Mission in Pensacola, which ordinarily serves just men, the shelter was opening its doors to women and children. The shelter can accommodate about 250 men and perhaps another 100 women and children, said Mick Breault, president of Water Front Rescue Mission.

“We will open our doors to everyone until we fill up,” he said.

A hard freeze warning is in effect for the Tampa Bay area from 9 p.m. Tuesday to 7 a.m. Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. Hard freeze warnings were issued Monday for the northern half of the state and extended as far south as Hernando, Lake, Sumter and Volusia counties.  Freezing temperatures in north Florida could last for 18 hours overnight Monday and into Tuesday, as well as another 15 hours from Tuesday night into Wednesday.

In central Florida, temperatures are expected to dip below freezing Tuesday night.

The cold weather has also forced the cancellations and delays of thousands of flights, leaving travelers stranded at airports. Southwest Airlines Co. spokesman Brad Hawkins said that the extreme cold is making tasks such as refueling so much longer and more difficult that it the airline can’t keep its usual schedule.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 2,500 flights were canceled across the U.S. and more than 4,400 were delayed, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.com. Half of the flights out of Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport — where the temperature Tuesday morning was minus-8 degrees — were already canceled for the day.

On Monday, more than 4,500 flights were canceled and more than 14,000 were delayed, FlightAware.com statistics show.

JetBlue resumed some flights in the Northeast Tuesday morning and expects to return to full operation at four affected airports by mid-afternoon. Some passengers at Boston’s Logan Airport had been stuck for two days, sleeping on cots and chairs.

By late Monday, Southwest had resumed flying at  Chicago’s Midway Airport, although Hawkins described the initial activity as “a trickle.” The airline’s planes are expected to be in position to resume normal operations on Tuesday, he said.

Recovery will be the focus in several Midwestern states Tuesday, since the subzero cold followed inches of snow and high winds that made traveling treacherous — especially on interstates in Indiana and Illinois — and was being blamed for numerous deaths in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. In Brimson, Minn., the temperature plunged to 40 below zero on Monday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

PJM Interconnection, who operates the power grid supplying energy to more than 61 million people in parts of the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and South, has asked users to conserve electricity Tuesday because of the cold, especially in the morning and late afternoon.

More than 30,000 customers in Indiana were without power late Monday night. Utility crews worked to restore electricity as temperatures plunged into the negative teens, but officials cautioned some people could be in the cold and dark for days. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence issued disaster declarations, paving the way to request federal aid.

“My kids are ready to go home, and I’m ready too,” said 41-year-old Timolyn Johnson-Fitzgerald, of Indianapolis, who faced a second night sleeping on cots at a Red Cross shelter with her three children, ages 11, 15, and 18.

More than 500 Amtrak passengers spent Monday night on three stopped trains headed for Chicago because of blowing and drifting snow in north-central Illinois. A spokesman said the trains — coming from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Quincy, Ill. — are operating on tracks owned by BNSF railroad and crews are working to reopen the tracks.

The 20 below zero wind chill in Lexington, Ky., Monday was so cold that an escaped prisoner to decide to turn himself in.

Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said 42-year-old Robert Vick of Hartford broke out of a minimum security facility in the city on Sunday. The next day, Vick walked into a motel and asked the clerk to call police so he could escape the arctic air, Roberts said. Vick was checked out by paramedics and returned to Blackburn Correctional Complex that day.

Bob Oravec, a meteorologist at the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Md., said the blast of frigid air raised concerns that roads wet from melted snow would freeze over Tuesday.

“In Maryland, we lost a lot of the snowpack and a lot of water is draining off, and the temperatures are dropping fast,” Oravec said.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, announcing that parts of the New York State Thruway in the western part of the state will be closed due to dangerous driving conditions, according to Reuters.

But there are signs things are returning to normal.

The Minnesota Zoo also announced it would reopen to the public Tuesday. State lawmakers in Indiana planned to kick off their 2014 legislative session after a day’s postponement.

And warmer temperatures — at least, near or above freezing — are in store for some parts of the Midwest. Indianapolis should reach 27 degrees on Wednesday, and other parts of the central U.S. could climb above freezing later in the week.

Even International Falls, Minn., had something to look forward to. Wind chills dropped as low as -55 Monday, but were expected to rebound to 25 below Tuesday. By Friday, the low was expected to be 5 to 10 above zero, Oravec said.

Until then, take advice for dealing with frostbite- and hypothermia-inducing cold from Anthony Bickham in St. Paul, Minn., who jumped around while waiting for the bus Monday.

“You gotta keep it moving,” Bickham said. “Stay warm at … all costs, you know.”