South chilled by Arctic winds, record snow in East

Published 9:45 pm Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bitter cold and snow sweeping into the eastern U.S left part of New England under record snowfall and hit Southerners with subfreezing temperatures that farmers fear could destroy strawberries and other crops.

The deep freeze was expected to last for at least the rest of the week. The National Weather Service said the mercury could fall below zero in St. Louis later this week for the first time since 1999.

The duration of the cold snap is unusual, especially in the South, where the weather is typically chilly for just a day or two before temperatures rebound into the 50s.

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Waves of Arctic air pushed into central Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, where farmers were scrambling to save strawberries and tomatoes as temperatures dipped into the 20s and wind chills into the teens. Hard freeze warnings covered the region Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

Charleston, S.C., was expecting subfreezing overnight lows all week. Parts of West Virginia could see 4 to 8 inches of snow by Wednesday morning, and many counties canceled school Tuesday ahead of the storm. A dusting of snow fell in western and central Kentucky overnight, heralding 3 to 5 inches expected in those areas, with some locally heavier amounts.

Record snows were reported over the weekend in Vermont. In Burlington, a storm dumped more than 33 inches, breaking a single-storm record of nearly 30 inches set in 1969.

Most took it in stride, but some took it too far: Vermont State Police cited a man after stopping him pulling a sled — with a rider in it — behind his car on Interstate 89 on Sunday. He was cited for driving with a suspended license.

It was a similar scene in upstate New York, where so-called “lake effect snow” blanketed parts of the state with more than 3 feet. More was expected in the region Tuesday.

Forecasters say snow will continue to fall on parts of northeast Ohio that already have two feet or more on the ground.

In Maine, the search continued for an 18-year-old snowmobiler who disappeared shortly after the storm started Friday night, and a small plane crashed into a river channel there Monday after reporting ice buildup on the wings.

A search resumed for a 7-year-old boy who fell through ice into a river in southern Wisconsin while sledding with friends Monday.

The weather caused hundreds of school closings and delays in Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the North Carolina mountains.

In Nashville, Tenn., where the overnight low was 12 degrees, police believe an 81-year-old man with Alzheimer’s Disease wandered outside in his bathrobe and froze to death, The Tennessean reported. His body was found early Monday.

Wrecks on icy roads killed at least two other people. A woman died near Mount Nebo, W.Va., when a pickup hit the van she was riding in Sunday. In Washington, D.C., a man died after his car ran off the road Sunday and plunged under a sheet of ice covering a creek.

Homeless shelters, especially in the Southeast, braced for a crush of people and said they would not turn anyone away.

Reginald Richardson of Columbia hates shelters but said this might be the week he caves in and spends a few nights.

“Yes, Lord, it has been cold,” said the 55-year-old, who has been homeless on and off for the past 25 years. “It got so cold last night, I thought about sleeping in a trash can.”

Instead, he stayed in a hospital lobby for a few hours until he fell asleep and was kicked out into the 20-degree weather.

In Oakland, Md., about 1,400 homes lost power with temperatures near zero. Many people shivered through the night until crews using torches could thaw frozen switching equipment, Allegheny Power spokesman Todd Myers said.

Todd Shaffer, 33, borrowed a blanket from his parents next door.

“I woke up in the middle of the night still shivering,” he said.

Two boilers at a state prison in Union Springs, Ala., stopped working over the weekend, said Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett.

He said one of the boilers should be repaired later Monday or Tuesday and a replacement boiler should be online by Wednesday. Portable heaters are being used but don’t address a lack of hot water at the prison that houses about 1,300 inmates, he said. Temperatures Monday night were expected in the high teens.

In Florida, farmers prepared for a long week trying to protect their crops. In Polk County — between Tampa and Orlando — temperatures were in the high 20s and strawberry farmers turned on sprinklers to create an insulation of ice for the berries.

“The problem now is that we have a weeklong freeze predicted,” said Ted Campbell, executive director for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. “It’s an endurance test.”

Parts of central Florida could see lows below freezing nearly every day this week. Even Key West isn’t immune. Temperatures there the next couple of days are expected to barely creep above 60 degrees with a stiff north wind — nowhere near average highs in the 70s that draw winter tourists.

Places like Birmingham, Ala., and Charlotte, N.C., will see temperatures above freezing for just a couple of hours a day all week long. Many Southern homes aren’t built to handle that type of cold, with uninsulated pipes and heat pumps that will have to run all the time just to keep things barely comfortable.

The phones were already ringing off the hook Monday at an agency in Greenville, S.C., that uses federal grants to help people with their heating bills.

“I’m very worried, especially for those who are not accustomed to seeking assistance,” said program coordinator Betty Cox.

Firefighters are also bracing for more calls this week. Five people died in a fire Friday in rural Plymouth, Mo., likely caused by an unattended fireplace, while three people were killed Saturday in Honea Path, S.C., when either a space heater or a stove started a fire in a mobile home.

“It’s cold and folks are trying to do whatever it takes to stay warm,” said David Berry, a volunteer fire chief in Alabama.