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Polar Vortex Death Toll Rises as Records Fall Across the Country

Image: Residents return from a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y.

Elmwood Village residents walk down Elmwood Avenue after purchasing needed items from a grocery store in Buffalo, New York January 7, 2014. A deadly blast of arctic air shattered decades-old temperature records as it enveloped the eastern United States on Tuesday, snarling air, road and rail travel, driving energy prices higher and overwhelming shelters for homeless people. DONALD HEUPEL / Reuters

The deadly, record-shattering blast of arctic air known as the polar vortex plunged almost the entire country below freezing on Tuesday and punished parts of it with much worse, including thousands more canceled flights and power grids straining as people cranked up the heat.

All 50 states dipped below 32 degrees at some point — even Hawaii, where it was 25 at the top of the Mauna Kea volcano, which is normally right at the freezing line this time of year.

Schools and businesses closed for a second day. Single-digit temperatures were recorded at sunrise as far south as Georgia and Alabama, and parts of Minnesota were as cold as 25 degrees below zero.

Records — not all-time, but at least for the date of Jan. 7 — fell in dozens of cities across the country: 11 degrees below zero in Cleveland, 6 above in Atlanta and 12 above in Austin, Texas.

A 118-year-old record was shattered in Central Park in New York, where it was 4 degrees, the coldest reading on the books for Jan. 7 and the coldest at any time since January 2004. Factor in the wind, and it felt like 31 below in Chicago, 16 below in New York and 45 below near the U.S.-Canadian border in Minnesota.

“Cold enough to take your breath away,” said Kevin Roth, a meteorologist at The Weather Channel.

Despite the cold, volunteers helping out in Minn. 2:42

At least 17 deaths were blamed on the severe weather since snow and bitter cold started punishing the Midwest late last week. They included a 90-year-old woman found dead near her stranded car in Ohio and a 1-year-old boy who was killed in Missouri when the car he was in collided with a snowplow on Monday.

Deaths were also reported in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. They included people who succumbed to exposure and had heart attacks shoveling snow.

Airports offered warmth but plenty of frustration. Almost 3,000 flights for Tuesday were canceled, bringing the two-day total to about 7,000. JetBlue, which grounded flights at four airports in the Northeast while it waited for the cold to pass, started flying again but warned that there would still be delays.

Homeless shelters across the country were overwhelmed by people seeking shelter from the cold, which the National Weather Service warned was severe enough in North Dakota and Minnesota to freeze human flesh in five minutes.

Forecasters said that the effects of the system, a swirling mass of North Pole air that has pushed unusually far south, would be felt by as many as 187 million people — more than half the country’s population.

Schools were closed as far south as Atlanta, where the morning wind child was 9 below. Class was canceled for a second day in Minneapolis and in Indianapolis, where Mayor Greg Ballard warned: “In 10 minutes, you could be dead without the proper clothes.”

Amtrak had to charter buses to get some customers to their destinations. Three trains, all headed for Chicago and carrying more than 500 passengers in all, were delayed overnight because of the severe weather, a spokesman said.

Working in bitter cold, Amtrak crews were able to make progress repairing damaged wires between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but the railway warned that passengers should brace for delays for most of the day.

Hard freeze warnings for Tuesday extended all the way south to the Gulf Coast. In Texas, one utility asked people to turn down the thermostat because power capacity was running low.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas declared its second-highest emergency level and had the option of going further, and ordering rolling blackouts for 10 to 45 minutes at a time, if the electrical grid was strained further. A South Carolina power company briefly implemented 15-minute blackouts for the same reason.

Tens of thousands of people were still without power in Illinois and Indiana because of weekend snowstorms, and the cold made it dangerous for the workers trying to get the lights and heat back on.

“It’s tough on all of us,” George Sipus of Indianapolis Power and Light, which was working to restore power to 22,000 customers, told WTHR, the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis. “You can’t stay out here real long.”

Adding to the misery, parts of western New York were under a blizzard warning because of lake-effect snow blown around by wind gusts as strong as 40 mph, creating drifts 3 feet deep or more.

Snow off the Great Lakes was falling as fast as 4 inches per hour — “actually so intense that we’re getting little areas of thunder and lightning,” said Carl Parker, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel.

Traveling in some places outside Buffalo, he said, would be “like traveling into Siberia.”

If traveling was even possible. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered parts of the New York Thruway, a major artery for the western part of that state, closed on Monday night. The Indianapolis mayor also encouraged people to stay off the road. Interstate 65 in Indiana reopened Tuesday morning, but drivers were still urged to take it slow.

The temperatures are the coldest for some parts of the country in two decades. The chill was expected to ease Wednesday, as the polar system retreats back to the north and temperatures return to something more like normal for January.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.