Polar air eases grip on U.S.

An arctic blast eased its grip on much of the U.S. on Wednesday, with winds calming and the weather warming slightly a day after temperature records — some more than a century-old — shattered up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

ATLANTA — An arctic blast eased its grip on much of the U.S. on Wednesday, with winds calming and the weather warming slightly a day after temperature records — some more than a century-old — shattered up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

In Atlanta, where a record low of -14 C hit early Tuesday, fountains froze over, a 200-foot Ferris wheel shut down and Southerners had to dig out winter coats, hats and gloves they almost never have to use. It shouldn’t take too long to thaw out, though. The forecast Wednesday was sunny and 5 C.

In the Midwest and East, where brutal polar air has lingered over the past few days, temperatures climbed but were still expected to be below freezing.

In Indianapolis, Timolyn Johnson-Fitzgerald returned to her home after spending the night in a shelter with her three children because they lost power to their apartment. The water lines were working, but much of the food she bought in preparation for the storm was ruined from a combination of thawing and then freezing during the outage.

“All my eggs were cracked, the cheese and milk was frozen. And the ice cream had melted and then refroze. It’s crazy, but we’re just glad to be back home,” she said.

On Tuesday, the mercury plunged into the single digits and teens 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.

“I didn’t think the South got this cold,” said Marty Williams, a homeless man, originally from Chicago, who took shelter at a church in Atlanta. “That was the main reason for me to come down from up North, from the cold, to get away from all that stuff.”

The cold turned deadly for some: Authorities reported at least 21 cold-related deaths across the country since Sunday, including seven in Illinois and six in Indiana. At least five people died after collapsing while shovelling snow, while several victims were identified as homeless people who either refused shelter or didn’t make it to a warm haven soon enough.

In Missouri on Monday, a 1-year-old boy was killed when the car he was riding in struck a snow plow, and a 20-year-old woman was killed in a separate crash after her car slid on ice and into the path of a tractor-trailer.

In a phenomenon that forecasters said is actually not all that unusual, all 50 states saw freezing temperatures at some point Tuesday. That included Hawaii, where it was -7 C atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano.

It was -17 C in Reading, Pa., and -16 C in Trenton, N.J. New York City plummeted to -15 C; the old record for the date was -14 C, set in 1896.

“It’s brutal out here,” said Spunkiy Jon, who took a break from her sanitation job in New York to smoke a cigarette in the cab of a garbage truck. “Your fingers freeze off after three minutes, your cheeks feel as if you’re going to get windburn, and you work as quick as you can.”

Farther south, Birmingham, Ala., dipped to a low of -14, four degrees colder than the old mark, set in 1970. Huntsville, Ala., dropped to -15 C, Nashville, Tenn., got down to -17 C, and Little Rock, Ark., fell to -13 C. Charlotte, N.C., reached -14 C, breaking the -11 C record that had stood since 1884.

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