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The big chill spreads to the East and South; sets record low temps

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ATLANTA - The polar air that has made the Midwestern United States shiver over the past few days spread to the East and South, setting record low temperatures from Boston and New York to Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and Little Rock — places where many people don't know the first thing about extreme cold.

The Midwest and the East were colder Tuesday 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 18 degrees (-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 10 degrees (-12 C); in Boston, around 18 degrees (-8 C).

Across the South, records were shattered like icicles. Birmingham, Alabama, dipped to a low of 7 degrees (-14 C), breaking the record of 11 degrees (-11.7 C) set in 1970. Atlanta saw a record low of 6 degrees (-14.5 C). Nashville, Tennessee, got down to 2 degrees (-16.7 C) and Little Rock, Arkansas, fell to 9 degrees (-13 C). It was just 1 degree (-17 C) at Washington Dulles International airport, eclipsing the 1988 mark of 8 degrees (-13 C).

The deep freeze dragged on in the Midwest as well, with the thermometer reaching minus 12 (-24 C) overnight in the Chicago area and 14 below (-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 for some: Authorities reported at least 21 cold-related deaths across the country since Sunday

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 in the U.S., bringing the four-day total to more than 11,000.

In New Orleans, which reported a low of 26 degrees (-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 19 degrees (-7 C). Patches of ice sparkled in parking lots where puddles froze overnight.

The continental U.S., when averaged out, reached a low of 13.8 degrees (-10 C) overnight Monday, according to calculations by Ryan Maue of Weather Bell Analytics. 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.

In Chicago, it was too cold even for the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo. While polar bears can handle below freezing cold in the wild, Anana was kept inside Monday because she doesn't have the thick layer of fat that bears typically get from feeding on seals and whale carcasses.

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