Brrr, y’all: Temps startle South, blanket the East

Published 8:55 pm Friday, January 16, 2009

Miserable, lung-burning, face-numbing temperatures are one thing in the Midwest and Northeast. But the Deep South?

Temperatures plummeted Friday across the Midwest and eastern U.S., and delivered a stinging slap to Southerners unaccustomed to the frigid weather. Schools were closed in a dozen states and homeless shelters were overcrowded. Those that did venture outside bundled up and made quick trips.

In an odd twist, Alabama was colder than Alaska.

“I never thought I’d see weather like this, not at all,” said Maya Morgan, a 20-year-old Christian missionary from Barbados, who is on a fellowship at the Atlanta University complex. “And so that’s why I like have, literally, six jackets on. Sometimes it’s too cold to keep your eyes open.”

Forecasters said temperatures in the upper Midwest could turn into the coldest in years as Arctic air keeps spilling southward from Canada. The cold snap has claimed at least six lives and contributed to dozens of traffic accidents. One death involved a man in a wheelchair who was found in subzero temperatures stuck in the snow, a shovel in his hand, outside his home in Des Moines, Iowa. He died at a hospital.

The cold weather has gripped the Midwest and Northeast for days, but as it crept farther South, some were growing worried.

“We’re afraid people will die in this kind of weather,” said Anita Beaty, who works with the homeless in Atlanta, where temperatures dropped below the teens, some 20 degrees below normal lows in January. About 900 men packed a shelter that normally houses 700.

Freezing temperatures threatened to kill picturesque Spanish moss hanging from Gulf Coast trees. Wind and choppy seas frustrated efforts to free an endangered right whale tangled in fishing gear off the Southeastern coast. And it was too cold to bet on dogs in West Virginia: A greyhound track shut down because of a predicted high of 7 degrees.

Then again, the cold was testing even the heartiest winter-weather states. On Friday morning, it was minus 10 in Cleveland, minus 6 in Detroit and minus 11 in Chicago. In upstate New York, areas near Lake Erie received up to 2 inches of snow per hour.

Quentin Masters wore two coats and long underwear to mail a gift at the post office in downtown Syracuse.

“It was almost too cold to come down here today but it’s a birthday present for my sister in Buffalo,” said Masters, 28. “It’s on Monday and I don’t want it to be late.”

It was so cold in Milwaukee that ice thawed at skating rinks. The subzero temperatures froze the ammonia tank needed to make ice at the indoor Pettit National Ice Center. Workers fixed the problem and two hockey rinks and the Olympic oval were expected to be ready for skaters later in the day.

Some in Illinois and Ohio lost power for several hours while Charleston, W.Va.-based Appalachian Power, which delivers electricity to more than 1 million customers Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, had a record for electricity demand as businesses and homes cranked up the heat.

The National Weather Service predicted the frigid temperatures would persist into the weekend. Wind chill warnings were in effect and forecasters said the cold and strong winds could lead to hypothermia, frostbite and death.

To Southerners, who rarely see temperatures so cold, the icebox-like weather was the most jarring. Construction worker Allen Johnson wore a gray beanie, flannel shirt, long johns and boots as he stopped for morning coffee in Montgomery, where the overnight low was 22 degrees.

“No matter how bad it is, it could be worse — we could be in Anchorage, Alaska,” Johnson said. Actually, the temperature was about 20 degrees warmer in Anchorage.

Second-grader Abbey Roberts waited for the school bus as the temperature hovered at 12 degrees in suburban Birmingham.

“I stood out there for a couple of minutes and my nose turned red. I was so cold I thought I was going to turn to an ice cube,” Roberts said.

In western Georgia, about 15,000 students got a day off in Carroll County; the temperature only made it to 25 degrees by lunchtime.

“You know us Southerners,” said schools spokeswoman Elena Schulenburg. “We might have the gloves and scarves, but we might not consider pulling them out. We may not consider how cold it is.”