US 'polar vortex' spreads into east, south

Last updated 14:08 08/01/2014

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At least nine people have been killed in the Artic blast gripping most of the US, which is being described as bone-chilling, finger-hurting, cheek-numbing, ear-biting.

Those are some of the words Americans are using to describe temperatures as much of the country freezes in the grip of a polar vortex.


Are you caught in the polar vortex? Email your newstips, photos and video to newstips@stuff.co.nz


The "polar vortex" has spread from the Midwestern to the east and south, setting record low temperatures 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.

The Midwest and the East were colder today than much of Antarctica.

In a phenomenon that forecasters said was actually not all that unusual, all 50 states have seen freezing temperatures at some point today. That included Hawaii, where it was -8 degrees Celsius atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano.

It was a freezing -12C in New York this morning, with 50kmh wind gusts making it feel much colder. In Chicago, it was -16C.

"Today is a brutal day, and there is no way around it," said Tom Kines, a meteorologist with AccuWeather in Pennsylvania. "One of my colleagues pointed out to me that the South Pole this morning is 6 below. (-21C). That means places like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, all those places are colder than the South Pole."

COLD BY THE NUMBERS

The big chill started in the Midwest over the weekend and by today, it covered about half of the country. In New York City, the high was expected to be -12C; in Boston, about -8C.

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

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

The cold snap could cost the US economy up to US$5 billion, when lost productivity and lost retail sales are accounted for, estimated Evan Gold, senior vice president at Planalytics, which tracks weather for businesses.

He said about 200 million people in major cities might face "bill shock" for heating.

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DEADLY COLD

Among the deaths reported was a 51-year-old homeless man in Columbus, Georgia, whose body was found in an empty lot after spending the night outdoors.

Two men died in Massachusetts while duck hunting when their boat capsized, dropping them into a frigid river, officials said. A third man was rescued.

A large avalanche in backcountry outside the Colorado ski resort area of Vail killed one person and caught up three others who survived and were being rescued, officials said.

Four cold and storm-related deaths were reported around Chicago and an elderly woman was found dead outside her Indianapolis home early on Monday.

Homeless shelters and public buildings have taken in people who were freezing outside.

Daniel Dashner, a 33-year-old homeless man who typically sleeps under a bridge on Milwaukee's south side, said he opted to seek a spot at a shelter on Monday night (Tuesday NZT).

''Usually if I have four or five blankets, I can stay pretty warm, but when that wind is blowing, I don't care how many blankets I have, the wind blows right through me,'' he said, as temperatures dropped to -21C.

FUGITIVE GIVES IN TO WEATHER

Just how cold is it in Kentucky? Apparently cold enough for an escaped prisoner to decide to turn himself in.

Authorities said the inmate escaped from a minimum security facility in Lexington on Sunday (Monday, NZT). As temperatures dropped the next day, officials say the man walked into a motel and asked the clerk to call police.

Robert Vick, 42, of Hartford told the clerk he wanted to turn himself in and escape the arctic air, Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said.

Vick was checked out by paramedics and returned to Blackburn Correctional Complex, Roberts said.

"This was definitely of his own volition," she said. "It's cold out there, too cold to run around. I can understand why the suspect would turn himself in."

Vick would have been dressed in prison-issued khaki pants, a shirt and a jacket when he escaped, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said. Wind chill readings were about -29C in Lexington.

The Lexington Fire Department treated Vick for hypothermia that evening, Roberts said.

Vick was serving a six-year sentence for burglary and criminal possession of a forged instrument at the time of the escape from Blackburn Correctional Center.

TOO CHILLY FOR A POLAR BEAR

It's even too cold for Chicago's resident polar bear.

The city's Lincoln Park Zoo says its polar bear, Anana, was kept inside because of the record-low temperatures.

Zoo spokeswoman Sharon Dewar says that while the below-zero weather might be comparable to what polar bears experience in the wild, Anana doesn't have a thick layer of fat that bears typically get from eating things such as seals and whale carcasses.

That extra insulation would make it uncomfortable to live in Chicago during the rest of the year, so Anana gets a different diet.

While she stayed inside, Anana lounged in her comparatively balmy indoor climate that's kept at single digits.

- Agencies

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