US polar vortex creates record lows, 21 dead

2014-01-08 11:54
A man braves the cold and walks along the shore of Lake Michigan as temperatures remain in the negative digits. (Darren Hauck, AFP)

A man braves the cold and walks along the shore of Lake Michigan as temperatures remain in the negative digits. (Darren Hauck, AFP)

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Atlanta - A deep freeze has spread from the US 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 on Tuesday. That included Hawaii, where it was -8°C 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 -12°C; in Boston, around -8°C.

Across the South, records were shattered like icicles. Birmingham, Alabama, dipped to a low of -14°C, breaking the record of -11.7°C set in 1970. Atlanta saw a record low of -14.5°C. Nashville, Tennessee, got down -16.7°C, and Little Rock, Arkansas, fell to -13°C. It was just -17°C at Washington Dulles International airport, eclipsing the 1988 mark of -13°C.

The deep freeze dragged on in the Midwest as well, with the thermometer reaching -24°C overnight in the Chicago area and -25.5°C 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.

Almost over

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 shovelling 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 centres across the eastern half of the US 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.

In New Orleans, which reported a low of -3°C, 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.

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

- AP
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