Massive freeze breaks new records, strands people on trains

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Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 293rd Infantry Regiment Highway Assistance Team, assited by a civilian, push out a stranded mother and her child in Fort Wayne, Indiana, January 6, 2014. (Photo Courtesy of 1st Battalion, 293rd Infantry Regiment)

By Josh Levs. Holly Yan and Marlena Baldacci

(CNN) — The polar vortex swirling its way across the United States is breaking new records, leaving travelers stranded on trains and in airports, and forcing the Coast Guard to cut through ice.

Even polar bears and penguins have had to take shelter indoors.

New York City saw a record low for the date Tuesday. It was just four degrees in Central Park, breaking a record of six set in 1896.

That’s not quite as bad as the all-time low of 15 below zero in 1934. But with the wind chill, temperatures still felt well below zero Tuesday — a 69-degree drop from Monday, when the weather was a relatively sultry 50 degrees with wind chill.

Temperatures plummeted below freezing somewhere in all 50 states Tuesday morning — most, but not all, due to the arctic blast hovering like an ice chest, according to CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen. (The cold regions of California and Hawaii, for example, had nothing to do with the vortex.)

In Florida, despite the low temperatures, crops were not damaged Tuesday morning, the state’s Fruit and Vegetable Association told CNN.

Hard freeze warnings were in effect from eastern Texas to the Florida Panhandle.

Authorities have blamed at least 15 deaths on the cold so far, including 11 from traffic accidents and two involving hypothermia.

The record cold in many areas is putting a strain on electric grids — creating dangers that more people could lose power. “We’re past our expected peak power demand for today,” the Tennessee Valley Authority said on Twitter. “Thanks for conserving where you can.” In Alabama, 27,000 customers were without power Tuesday morning, but that figure dropped to about 18,000 as service was restored in some areas, according to Alabama Power.

At Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, Anana — a polar bear who never grew the thick layer of fat that bears in the Arctic do — had to be brought inside Monday. And at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, bald eagles and African penguins, “who are used to temperate climates,” were taken off exhibit until the weather warms up, the facility reported.

Travel snarled

The weather left 500 people stranded on three Amtrak trains overnight in northern Illinois, an Amtrak spokesman said.

The Bureau County Sheriff’s Office said it responded Monday night after the trains were reportedly stuck in snowdrifts.

The Mendota Police Department received a report from Amtrak around 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) about a train stuck about 4 miles west of the city, Sgt. Ken Haun said. Officers tried to reach the train but couldn’t because of the weather.

Amtrak worked to make other arrangements, putting some passengers on buses.

On one train, which was stuck near Kalamazoo, Michigan, about 300 passengers had to wait more than nine hours to reach their destination, CNN affiliate WXMI reported.

“It was kind of like purgatory,” a passenger told CNN affiliate WLS, adding that it was “not quite hellish because there was good company.” The train, which was bound for Chicago, finally arrived at the city’s Union Station on Monday night, WLS reported.

More than 2,300 flights were canceled within, into or out of the United States on Tuesday morning, according to flightaware.com.

New York resident Mindy Goldberg said her family’s flight back from Mexico had been diverted to Boston because of the weather.

“I just called my kids’ school to tell them they wouldn’t be there, and she said, ‘Everyone’s stuck somewhere,'” Goldberg told CNN affiliate WBZ.

Ships ran into trouble as well. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hollyhock had to break through ice in Lake Michigan.

In Indianapolis, Los Angeles resident Jason Bentley decided to play in the snow outside the airport after learning that his flight home had been canceled Sunday. It was 15 below zero (-26 Celsius).

“This is the wettest snow I’ve ever touched, the easiest snow to make a snowman and to have snowball fights,” Bentley wrote in a CNN Facebook discussion. “It’s also probably the worst (weather) I’ve ever been in because of the temperature.”

“Sick as a dog. Car is dead. Roads are closed. Space heater died yesterday,” Amanda Brooke of Valparaiso, Indiana, said on Facebook. “Missing doctors’ appointments I’ve had for six months.” She described herself as “cold, sick, and trying not to be miserable.”

In Columbus, Ohio, Alexis Mitchell-Tremain posted that she still had to go to work. “So, it’s layers of clothing, the hubby’s big woolly scarf, and a lot of coffee.”

Jason Coppula in Pittsburgh can relate. “I have about three layers on, two gloves, two (pairs of) socks, scarf and ski goggles,” he wrote on Facebook.

Extreme wind chills mean flesh can freeze in as little as five minutes. Several major school districts are closed Tuesday, including those in Minneapolis and Atlanta, to prevent children from waiting outside at bus stops.

Chicago opened up 12 centers for residents trying to stay warm, one of which was to stay open through Tuesday. Libraries and some other city facilities would also be open, said Evelyn Diaz of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services. Gov. Pat Quinn said 100 warming centers were open statewide.

When will this end?

Temperatures should start edging closer to normal starting Wednesday.

By Thursday, most of the country will be back to normal, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said. In fact, some temperatures may even be a bit higher.

CNN’s Kait Richmond, Deborah Doft, Matt Smith, Indra Petersons, Stephanie Elam, and Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.

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