Record freeze extends to eastern US, at least 6 dead

Lasharn Harvey (right) protects herself and her dog Sahara, 5, from the cold underneath a large sleeping bag at the McPhearson Square Metro station beneath the Department of Veterans Affairs on Jan 7, 2014 in Washington, United States. A 'polar vorte
Lasharn Harvey (right) protects herself and her dog Sahara, 5, from the cold underneath a large sleeping bag at the McPhearson Square Metro station beneath the Department of Veterans Affairs on Jan 7, 2014 in Washington, United States. A 'polar vortex' carrying Arctic air and wind gusts of up to 50 mph has engulfed much of the eastern United States, creating life-threatening weather conditions. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A deadly blast of arctic air shattered decades-old temperature records as it enveloped the eastern United States on Tuesday, canceling thousands of flights, driving energy prices higher and overwhelming shelters for homeless people.

New York's Central Park hit a record low temperature for the date - minus 16 deg C - but with winds gusting to 51kmh conditions felt far colder, the National Weather Service said.

Authorities have put about half of the United States (US) under a wind chill warning or cold weather advisory with the icy conditions snarling air, road and rail travel. Temperatures were expected to be 14 to 19 deg C below normal from the Midwest to the Southeast, the National Weather Service said.

The agency that oversees the electric grid supplying the mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest said electricity suppliers were struggling to keep up with surging demand as the cold forced some power plants to shut.

"This particular cold is far-reaching and most of our neighbors are experiencing the extreme conditions we are," said Mr Michael Kormos, executive vice president for operations at the agency, PJM Interconnection. Its members include units of American Electric Power Co, FirstEnergy Corp, Exelon Corp, Public Service Electric & Gas Co.

In New York and Washington, homeless shelters and other public buildings took in people who were freezing outside.

"My hands were frozen like ice picks. I came in here to get my hands warm. I put them under the hot water here," said Mike Smith, 48, a homeless man who had been dozing in the lobby of Washington's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

At least six deaths have been reported across the country due to the polar air mass sweeping over North America, producing the coldest temperatures in two decades.

Major US cities were in the grip of temperatures well below freezing, with Chicago and Detroit seeing temperatures of minus 18 deg C, Pittsburgh minus 17 deg C and Washington and Boston minus 9 deg C.

Schools in Minneapolis and Chicago were closed. Cleveland remained below freezing after temperatures fell to minus 24 deg C on Monday, breaking a 130-year-old record.

After running into impassable snow and ice, three Chicago-bound Amtrak trains came to a halt on Monday, stranding more than 500 passengers overnight in northwestern Illinois. The passengers were being taken to Chicago by bus on Tuesday.

At New York's Bowery Mission homeless shelter, the 80-bed dormitory was full on Monday night and 179 other people slept in the chapel and cafeteria, officials said.

"We had our staff go out to walk the neighbourhood to make sure everyone was aware they could come in for the night," said Mr James Winan, a chief development officer at the Bowery Mission.

In the normally mild south, Atlanta recorded its coldest weather on this date in 44 years, when the temperature dropped to minus 14 deg C, while temperatures in northern Florida also briefly dropped below freezing, though the state's citrus crop was unharmed, according to a major growers' group.

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

AIRLINES STRUGGLE

The cold snap could cost the US economy up to US$5 billion (S$6.3 billion), when lost productivity and lost retail sales are accounted for, estimated Mr 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, which could prompt them to cut back on other spending in the next couple of months.

The deep freeze disrupted morning commutes on Tuesday with icy or closed roads and flight delays. Some 2,380 US flights were canceled and 2,912 delayed, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks airline activity.

Hardest hit were travellers who had booked trips on JetBlue Airways Corp, which on Monday halted its flights at New York's three major airports and Boston Logan International Airport overnight to allow its crews to rest after five days of trying to recover from snow- and cold-related delays. The carried resumed flights by midday on Tuesday.

Airlines scrambled to catch up a day after killer cold caused fuel supplies to freeze solid, leading to extensive flight cancellations, particularly at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

In Chicago, Mr Peter Kreunen, a middle manager at a chemical company, had decided to drive in on Tuesday after his normal train commute took hours a day earlier.

"It's a total mess," said Mr Kreunen, 42, while parking his car at an underground garage. "You'd think by now the trains would be running normally and the roads would be covered in grit. But it seems to be getting worse rather than better." The cold took some visitors to New York by surprise.

"It is unbearable. We arrived yesterday and came out just to shop for more clothes," said Mr Daniel Bounomie, 25, a Brazilian tourist who was walking through Times Square arm in arm with his shivering sister.

Outside Boston, the cold had plumber's assistant Paul Tonnessen, 27, scrambling from job to job, repairing burst pipes. "Pipes will freeze, heat goes out," he said. "You've got to go. You can't leave people without heat on days like today."