A cold wave pushed temperatures below zero in 17 states Wednesday and drove thousands of homeless people into shelters in the eastern half of the country, while a new storm sent snow swirling over the Rockies and plains.
Across the Midwest and Northeast, homeless shelters were filled to capacity and beyond, with hundreds sleeping on couches or air mattresses on the floor. Others took shelter in subways, bus and police stations and building lobbies, officials said.
"We can hold up to about 50, but it's one of those things where you can't say no," said Skip Kelley of the Inner City Mission in Springfield, Ill., where the low was 5 degrees below zero.
Philadelphia's shelter service said it was placing 60% more people than last year. In Boston, an extra rescue van brought homeless people to shelters.
In Rhode Island, some shelters said they had to turn people away. Many in Providence found refuge in the Bonanza Bus Terminal, but it closes at midnight.
"If someone asks for a place, we send them to the police station, which is just a block away," station manager Leo Desmarais said.
In New York City, where the low was 8 degrees, nearly 10,000 homeless people packed the city's emergency shelters. The temperature reached 11 degrees overnight in Washington, and scores of homeless people slept in City Hall.
Power companies reported record demand, and the bitter cold meant dead car batteries, stalled vehicles, cracked pipes, delayed school openings, power outages and many cases of frostbite.
Power outages briefly affected a few thousand customers in Wisconsin, Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois, with smaller outages reported elsewhere.
The National Weather Service in South Bend, Ind., where the temperature dipped to 10 below overnight, reported an unusual phenomenon called a "luminous pillar"--a vertical column of light produced at night by city lights and moonlight being bent, or refracted, as it passes through tiny ice crystals.
Many Records Set or Tied
Record lows were set or tied in at least 11 cities Wednesday, including Chicago, with 14 below, and Youngstown, Ohio, with 2 below. Weather forecasters said it would remain frigid at least a few more days.
"We were pampered somewhat the last couple of years. Generally, the cold snaps weren't that severe and didn't last as long," said Byron Paulson in Minneapolis.
The coldest temperature in the country Wednesday was recorded in Huron, S.D., which had a record 37 below zero. Sioux Falls reported a record low of 25 below and Pierre had a record 24 below. In all, subzero temperatures were reported in at least 17 states.
Other subzero readings included 27 below in Bismarck, N.D., 18 below in Minneapolis, 14 below in Rapid City, S.D., 6 below in Omaha, 2 below in Pittsburgh, Pa., and 1 below in Cincinnati.
Authorities have attributed 24 deaths to the cold weather, 14 by exposure.
Among the exposure deaths was an elderly woman who dressed herself in a coat and high-heeled shoes before wandering away from her home in Indianapolis. Another woman was found dead in an alley near Chicago's police headquarters.
Weather officials advised people to keep extra blankets and clothing in cars in case of a breakdown.
"One man had a flat on his way to work this morning and he stopped for 10 minutes to change his tire and has frostbite on both hands," said Dr. Robert Rusnak at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, a major storm Wednesday spread snow from the southern and central Rockies across the Texas Panhandle and Kansas to parts of Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Mississippi.
In Texas, up to seven inches of snow had fallen in the Panhandle, with significant accumulations of snow and ice. American Airlines canceled incoming flights at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.