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Updated: Wed, 08 Jan 2014 07:48:11 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

U.S. polar vortex sets record low temps, kills 21



Ana Holmes is pictured through snowy glass at a bus stop on the Grand Valley State University Allendale Township campus Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. Holmes said the bus was running late. (© AP Photo/The Grand Rapids Press, Cory Morse)

Ana Holmes is pictured through snowy glass at a bus stop on the Grand Valley State University Allendale Township campus Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. Holmes said the bus was running late. (AP Photo/The Grand Rapids Press, Cory Morse) ALL LOCAL TV OUT; LOCAL TV INTERNET OUT Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press/The Associated Press

A deep freeze spread from the U.S. Midwest to the East and South, setting record low temperatures from Boston to Birmingham, and leaving 21 people dead, authorities said. The Midwest and the East experienced temperatures colder than much of Antarctica.

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 –8 C atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano.

The big chill started in the Midwest over the weekend, and by Tuesday, it covered about half of the country. In New York City, the high was expected to be –12 C; in Boston, around –8 C.

Across the South, records were shattered like icicles:

- Birmingham, Ala.: –14 C.

- Atlanta: –14.5 C.

- Nashville, Tenn.: –16.7 C.

- Little Rock, Ark.: –13 C.

- Washington, D.C.: –17 C.

The deep freeze dragged on in the Midwest as well, with the thermometer reaching –24 C overnight in the Chicago area and –25.5 C in suburban St. Louis. More than 500 passengers were stranded overnight on three Chicago-bound trains that were stopped by blowing and drifting snow in Illinois. Food ran low, but the heat stayed on.

The cold turned deadly as 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 to save themselves from the bitter temperatures.

The worst should be over in the next day or two. Warmer weather — at least, near or above freezing — is in the forecast for much of the stricken part of the country.

On Tuesday, many schools and daycare centres across the eastern half of the U.S. were closed so that youngsters wouldn't be exposed to the dangerous cold. Officials opened shelters for the homeless and anyone else who needed a warm place.

With the bitter cold slowing baggage handling and aircraft refuelling, airlines cancelled more than 2,000 flights countrywide, bringing the four-day total to more than 11,000.

In New Orleans, which reported a low of -3 C, hardware stores ran out of pipe insulation. A pipe burst in an Atlanta suburb and a main road quickly froze over. In downtown Atlanta, a Ferris wheel near Centennial Olympic Park that opened over the summer to give riders a bird's eye view of the city closed because it was too cold.

Farther south in Pensacola, Florida, a Gulf Coast city better known for its white sand beaches than frost, streets normally filled with joggers, bikers and people walking dogs were deserted early Tuesday. A sign on a bank flashed –7 C. Patches of ice sparkled in parking lots where puddles froze overnight.

An estimated 190 million people in the U.S. were subjected to the icy blast, caused by a kink in the "polar vortex," the strong winds that surround the North Pole.

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