The Heat Is Online

Long Cold Spell Grips Most of U.S.

South hit by even colder spell

NBC, MSNBC and news services, Jan. 24 — Schools closed in parts of the South while farmers raced to protect crops ahead of expected record low temperatures — part of the weeklong arctic cold front that’s kept the eastern two-thirds of the United States on ice. Reacting to the cold snap, President Bush on Friday ordered the release of $200 million to a federal home heating aid program to help millions of low-income people pay their heating bills.

Democrats on Capitol Hill had lobbied aggressively for the money, especially as temperatures around the country have dropped precipitously in the past two weeks.

The icy chill deepened early Friday as temperatures fell to the teens and single digits in most of the South, with an unfamiliar dip below the freezing mark as far south as south Florida. Wind chill warnings and advisories were issued in more than two dozen states.

NBC’s Kerry Sanders, reporting from a strawberry farm in Florida, said farmers were battling the 26-degree temperatures by freezing strawberries with a light film of water, essentially chilling them at 32 degrees to protect them from even colder temperatures.

The plunge in temperatures also pose a threat to Florida’s $9 billion-a-year citrus crop, most of which is still on the trees. Growers were hurrying to harvest as many oranges and grapefruit as possible, but Sanders reported that by Friday morning only 30 percent of citrus crops had been harvested.

In the Northeast, meanwhile, Coast Guard crews were freeing trapped barges, many of them carrying heating oil for homes.

"Ninety percent of home heating oil and other energy fuels in the Northeast are delivered by water," Coast Guard Petty Officer Megan Casey said. "We’ll continue breaking ice to keep those waterways open."

NBC’s Soledad O’Brien, reporting Friday morning from one Coast Guard ice breaker along New York’s Hudson River, said the ice was 18 inches thick in places while the temperature was a chilling one degree below zero.

The ice also shut down some ferries to Boston and New York, forcing commuters into trains and buses.

As for school closures, classes in most of North Carolina, northern Georgia and in seven northern Florida counties were called off Friday.

In the Atlanta area, 117 schools either didn’t open or delayed classes Friday, not because of any snow or ice but due to the bitter cold. School officials feared children would end up waiting in the cold for stalled buses.

Atlanta saw a low of 8 degrees Friday morning, with a wind chill of minus 10 degrees.
On Thursday, schools were closed in Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, West Virginia and even in Wisconsin and upstate New York. It was the first "snow day" of the season in Syracuse, N.Y., which has received nearly 8 feet of snow this winter.

On Friday, record lows were reported in many areas, including: North Myrtle Beach, S.C. (16 degrees); Florence, S.C. (13 degrees); Wilmington, N.C. (16 degrees); Meridian, Miss. (11 degrees); and West Palm Beach, Fla. (35 degrees).

Wind chills made it feel as low as 10 below zero. Wind chill in the Miami metropolitan area made it feel like the 20s even in usually balmy Miami Beach.

The mercury began to plummet in the South on Thursday with the arrival of an arctic air mass that has had the East and Plains shivering for days.

"We couldn’t believe how cold it was," said tourist Martin King, who arrived this week in Orlando, Fla., from Bristol, England. "We brought shorts, T-shirt, and I had to go out and buy another coat."

Snow ranging from a dusting to up to 12 inches on Thursday blanketed the Carolinas, Tennessee and parts of Virginia, closing schools and snarling commutes.

North Carolina saw more than 1,100 accidents during the Thursday morning commute. NBC’s Rosalind Jordan, reporting from Charlotte, said hundreds of accidents had been reported Friday morning as well.

Temperature records were broken Thursday across the state. Record lows included 6 degrees in Asheville, 9 in Charlotte and 17 in Wilmington. More broken records were likely Friday morning.

Officials said temperatures wouldn’t get well above freezing until Saturday afternoon. "This is going to be around all weekend," said Chuck Hansen, public works director for Hickory, N.C.

The state’s Outer Banks saw the first significant snowfall in 13 years, while 40 mph winds created a beachfront blizzard that obliterated views. Up to nine inches piled up in Buxton, Ocracoke and Cedar Island, and the high winds piled it in drifts up to 2 feet deep.

Dare County, which includes most of the Outer Banks, closed schools and suspended trash collection until Monday, and the state sent in snowplows because the county doesn’t have any.

The Outer Banks are usually immune to such chills because it is insulated by relatively warm water.

The arctic air that’s hung over the eastern United States for more than a week has created wind chills as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In New York City, the last time the mercury rose above freezing was Jan. 13.

"It’s remarkable, the longevity of it," said Tim Morrin, a National Weather Service meteorologist. "It just doesn’t seem like we’re getting a break."

A sagging jet stream from Canada has caused the freezing conditions.

Weather Service meteorologist Ed Danaher said a "slow moderating trend" will begin early next week but that temperatures east of the Rockies won’t return to seasonal averages until next Friday. "The cold will linger a bit, but the good news is it won’t be as cold as we’ve felt," he said.

Mike Halpert, another U.S. government meteorologist, said the climate phenomenon El Niño is not responsible for the cold air. "If anything," he said, "this cold pattern is not typically experienced during El Niño periods — at least not the past few El Niños."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.