MINNEAPOLIS - The coldest, most dangerous blast of polar air in decades gripped the U.S. Midwest and pushed toward the East and South on Monday, closing schools and daycare centres, grounding flights and forcing people to pull their hoods and scarves tight to protect exposed skin from nearly instant frostbite.
Many across the country's midsection went into virtual hibernation, while others dared to venture out in temperatures that plunged well below zero Fahrenheit (-18 C).
"I'm going to try to make it two blocks without turning into crying man," said Brooks Grace, who was bundling up to do some banking and shopping in downtown Minneapolis, where temperatures reached 23 below F (-31 C), with wind chills of minus 48 F (-45 C). "It's not cold — it's painful."
The mercury also dropped into negative territory in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Chicago, which set a record for the date at minus 16 F (-27 C). Wind chills across the region were 40 below (-40 C) and colder. Records also fell in Oklahoma, Texas and Indiana.
Forecasters said some 187 million people in all could feel the effects of the "polar vortex" by the time it spread across the country on Monday night and Tuesday.
Record lows were possible in the East and South, with highs in the single digits F (-17 to -13 C) expected Tuesday in Georgia and Alabama. Wind chills were expected to reach minus 10 F (-23 C) in Atlanta and minus 12 (-24 C) in Baltimore.
From the Dakotas to Maryland, schools and daycare centres shut down.
For a big swath of the Midwest, the bone-chilling cold moved in behind another winter wallop: more than a foot (30 centimetres) of snow and high winds that made travelling treacherous.
Several deaths were blamed on the snow, ice and cold since Saturday, including the death of a one-year-old boy who was in a car that went out of control and collided with a snowplow Monday in Missouri.
It took authorities using huge military vehicles known as "wreckers" until early Monday to clear all the chain-reaction accidents caused when several semis jackknifed along snowy interstates in southern Illinois.
The crash stranded about 375 vehicles, but there were no fatalities or injuries, largely because motorists either stayed with their cars or were rescued and taken to nearby warming centres if they were low on gas or didn't have enough coats or blankets, said Jonathon Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Others got stuck in the snowdrifts, including the Southern Illinois men's basketball team, which had to spend the night sleeping in a church.
In the eastern United States, temperatures in the 40s and 50s F (from single digits to the low teens Celsius) Monday helped melt piles of snow from a storm last week, raising the risk that roads would freeze over as the cold air moved in Monday night, said Bob Oravec from the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. The snap was set to be dramatic; Springfield, Massachusetts, enjoyed 56 degrees F (13 C) Monday morning but faced an overnight low of 6 F (-14 C).
More than 3,700 flights were cancelled by late Monday afternoon, following a weekend of travel disruption across the U.S. Airline officials said de-icing fluid was freezing, fuel was pumping sluggishly, and ramp workers were having difficulty loading and unloading luggage. JetBlue Airways stopped all scheduled flights to and from New York and Boston on Monday. Southwest ground to a halt in Chicago earlier in the day, but by the evening, flights resumed in "a trickle," a spokesman said.
Authorities in Indiana and Kentucky — where temperatures dropped into the single digits F (-13 to -17) and below, with wind chills in the minus 20s (-30s C) and worse — warned people not to leave their homes at all unless they needed to go someplace safer.
Utility crews worked to restore power to more than 40,000 Indiana customers affected by the weekend storm and cautioned that some people could be in the cold and dark for days.
Ronald Smith took shelter at an Indianapolis Red Cross after waking up the previous night with the power out and his cat, Sweet Pea, agitated in the darkness.
"The screen door blew open and woke me up, and it was cold and dark. I got dressed and I was scared, thinking, 'What am I going to do? My cat knew something was wrong. He was jumping all over the place," Smith said. "This is brutal cold. The cold is what makes this so dangerous."
Officials in Chicago and other cities checked on the homeless and shut-ins for fear they might freeze to death on the street or in their homes.
Only a few hardy souls braved the cold on the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, normally a busy pedestrian area. Many people downtown used the extensive heated skyway system, where it is warm enough to walk around in office attire. Nearly all stores on the skyway were open as usual.
Jersey Devil Pizza & Wings was not.
"Apologies ... We are East Coast wimps. Too cold! Stay safe, see you Tuesday," read a sign taped to the door.