A record-setting cold snap in the Midwest enveloped the eastern half of the country Tuesday, with brutally cold temperatures recorded from the deep South up to New England.
Officials opened warming centers, canceled schools and grappled with strained power grids as shivering residents from the Florida Panhandle to St. Louis to New York cranked up the heat. Train and air travelers suffered continued transportation snarls. The dangerously frigid air sent people to hospitals with frostbite and contributed to multiple deaths, including in Wisconsin, Texas and Ohio, authorities said.
“Nobody is getting out of this one right now,” said Bruce Terry, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, which expected Tuesday to be the coldest day of the big chill. Temperatures are forecast to begin moderating on Wednesday.
The unusually raw weather is the result of a “polar vortex,” a low-pressure system of swirling Arctic-cold air that typically sits in Canada this time of year but has dropped into the Great Lakes region and New England.
While the main result of the shift was bone-chilling temperatures, narrow bands of heavy snow and blizzard conditions pummeled western New York. In the Tug Hill Plateau, a region bordering Lake Ontario, residents braced for the possibility of 80 inches of snow by Wednesday afternoon.
“The fun is short-lived,” said Tanya Yerdon, the supervisor of Redfield, N.Y., in Oswego County. “Last April, we got 43 inches overnight, and I’ll tell you, by then, you’re over it.”
The Midwest remained in a deep freeze Tuesday, while the frigid air spread south and east. Northern and central parts of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, as well as northern Arkansas, all had single-digit temperatures Tuesday morning, with temperatures in the teens in the Florida Panhandle, the weather service said. It was 6 degrees in Atlanta, 28 degrees below the average low for this time of year.
Some churches on the Gulf Coast opened as emergency shelters and people brought hot drinks and blankets to those who didn’t come indoors. Tens of thousands of people were without power intermittently in the Southeast on Tuesday, as providers responded to high demand by implementing rolling blackouts to avoid taxing their systems.
Utilities asked customers to cut power use Tuesday evening in New York, where a record low of 6 degrees for Jan. 7 was recorded at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and in New Jersey.
Safety was a significant concern. “I can’t stress how dangerous these low temperatures can be on everyone, especially our elderly population, children and even city employees,” said Michael Huss, director of public safety in Pittsburgh, where temperatures hit minus 8 degrees in the morning.
Authorities attributed numerous deaths and injuries to the cold and storms over the past few days. St. Louis University Hospital said Tuesday that in the previous 24 hours, it saw 15 weather-related injuries—frostbite, falls and chest pain—in the emergency room.
George Stamatis, spokesman for University Hospitals in Cleveland, said hypothermia contributed to the death of a man brought into the hospital Monday, and another patient was treated for hypothermia for the condition Tuesday. Three others had been treated for frostbite.
Police in San Antonio believe the cold contributed to the death of a homeless man found under a highway overpass Tuesday. A Milwaukee man found dead outside his home Friday perished from hypothermia, according to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office. The Associated Press said there also were cold-related deaths in Illinois and Indiana.
More than 2,500 flights within, into or out of the U.S. were canceled Tuesday, according to airline tracker FlightAware.com. Meanwhile, hundreds of Amtrak train passengers who spent Monday night stranded in rural Illinois made their way to Chicago Tuesday morning and into the afternoon by bus, as extreme winter conditions blocked tracks and will force route cancellations through midweek.
—Valerie Bauerlein, Ben Kesling and Megan Buerger contributed to this article.