Polar blast grips Delaware, Lehigh Valleys

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January 7, 2014 8:21:05 PM PST
A frigid air mass that has already broken records across the central U.S. descended on the Delaware and Lehigh Valleys Tuesday.

Residents across the tri-state area woke up to temperatures in the single digits and wind chills in the negative teens.

It is the coldest weather this area has seen in 20 years. Temperatures were not expected to rise significantly for at least 24 hours, and a wind chill advisory was in effect until 6 a.m. Wednesday.

The National Weather Service warned the very cold temperatures and strong winds could lead to hypothermia and frostbite to exposed skin in a short period of time.

Experts were advising everyone to dress warmly and allow extra time heading out Tuesday morning.

The blustery winds buffeted motor vehicles. The extreme cold saw Amtrak running on a modified schedule, and NJ Transit was cross-honoring tickets. Dozens of schools delayed opening for several hours.

The cold air mass arrived on the East Coast one day after paralyzing the Midwest.

Monday's subzero temperatures broke records in Chicago, which set a record for the date at minus 16, and Fort Wayne, Ind., where the mercury fell to 13 below. Records also fell in Oklahoma and Texas, and wind chills across the region were 40 below and colder. Officials in states like Indiana already struggling with high winds and more than a foot of snow urged residents to stay home if they could.

"The cold is the real killer here," Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said Monday as he asked schools and businesses to remain closed another day. "In 10 minutes you could be dead without the proper clothes."

In downtown Louisville, Ky., where wind chills dropped to 22 below zero Monday, John Tyler gathered with friends at a McDonald's. The self-described homeless man spent Sunday night sleeping on the street.

Dressed in a sweatshirt, two coats and a black woolen cap, Tyler said there's no way to adequately prepare for this kind of cold.

"How we're dealing with it? You can't deal with it," Tyler said. "There's no way you can deal with it."

Forecasters said some 187 million people in all could feel the effects of the "polar vortex" by the time it spreads across the country. Tennessee utility officials braced for near-record power demand, while Ohio prepared for its coldest temperatures in decades.

PJM Interconnection, who operates the power grid supplying energy to more than 61 million people in parts of the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and South, has asked users to conserve electricity Tuesday because of the cold, especially in the morning and late afternoon.

Recovery will be the focus in several Midwestern states Tuesday, since the subzero cold followed inches of snow and high winds that made traveling treacherous - especially on interstates in Indiana and Illinois - and was being blamed for numerous deaths in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence issued disaster declarations, paving the way to request federal aid.

More than 30,000 customers in Indiana were without power late Monday night. Utility crews worked to restore electricity as temperatures plunged into the negative teens, but officials cautioned some people could be in the cold and dark for days.

"My kids are ready to go home, and I'm ready too," said 41-year-old Timolyn Johnson-Fitzgerald, of Indianapolis, who faced a second night sleeping on cots at a Red Cross shelter with her three children, ages 11, 15, and 18.

More than 500 Amtrak passengers spent the night on three stopped trains headed for Chicago because of blowing and drifting snow in north-central Illinois. A spokesman said the trains - coming from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Quincy, Ill. - are operating on tracks owned by BNSF railroad and crews are working to reopen the tracks.

Bob Oravec, a meteorologist at the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Md., said the blast of frigid air raised concerns that roads wet from melted snow would freeze over.

"In Maryland, we lost a lot of the snowpack and a lot of water is draining off, and the temperatures are dropping fast," Oravec said.

But there are signs things are returning to normal.

JetBlue Airways, which stopped all scheduled flights to and from New York and Boston on Monday, planned to resume some flights Tuesday morning. Southwest Airlines operations in Chicago resumed Monday night, even if it was, as a spokesman for the Texas-based airline called it, "a trickle."

The Minnesota Zoo announced it would reopen to the public Tuesday. State lawmakers in Indiana planned to kick off their 2014 legislative session after a day's postponement.

And warmer temperatures - at least, near or above freezing - are in store for the Midwest. Indianapolis should reach 27 degrees on Wednesday, and other parts of the central U.S. could climb above freezing later in the week.

Even International Falls, Minn., had something to look forward to. Wind chills dropped as low as -55 Monday, but were expected to rebound to 25 below Tuesday. By Friday, the low was expected to be 5 to 10 above zero, Oravec said.

Until then, take advice for dealing with frostbite- and hypothermia-inducing cold from Anthony Bickham in St. Paul, Minn., who jumped around while waiting for the bus Monday.

"You gotta keep it moving," Bickham said. "Stay warm at ... all costs, you know."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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