As temperatures plunge, a nation dons earmuffs

Cold snap hits fuel-oil supplies and homeless from Boston to Seattle.

Global warming? Fuggedaboutit! North Americans have had a universal case of the shivers in recent days. Sweeping across the country from the Pacific Northwest to New England, the Polar Express brought storms and bone-chilling cold.

For many cities, there were record low temperatures: 19 below zero at Montpelier, Vt.; 16 below at Syracuse, N.Y.; 7 below zero at Scranton, Pa. St. Johnsbury, Vt., bottomed out at 27 below, eight degrees warmer than Whitefield, N.H., at minus 35 degrees for the nation's low. Even Georgia, Alabama, and Florida had freeze warnings.

Campaigning in Milford, N.H., where it was a relatively comfy minus 6 degrees, Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark (who grew up in Little Rock, Ark.), quipped: "It's cold - what people in New Hampshire told me I should call 'crisp.' "

In Boston, homeless people were allowed to stay all day in shelters normally open only at night. Still, at least two apparently homeless men succumbed to the cold.

With the winter not even three weeks along, some communities already have used up their federal funds budgeted for helping low-income families heat their homes and apartments. "People are quite desperate," says Cristina Amedeo, director of a shelter in Rhode Island. "They're begging me to give them money so they can pay their gas or utility bills."

A kind of triage went on with the flood of incoming 911 calls across the northern half of the country, with the merely inconvenient situations (a marooned car in front of one's driveway) responded to after true emergencies.

Many travelers wished they'd never left home. In Portland, Ore., 1,420 flights were canceled as airport waiting areas became home for hundreds of passengers stuck there, some for several days. Powell's City of Books brought in cartloads of novels, the Salvation Army supplied blankets, and Krispy Kreme soothed the frustration with doughnuts.

You'd think all of this would be good news for winter sports. But here in the Siskiyou mountains of southern Oregon, power outages and impassable roads meant that the Mount Ashland ski area couldn't open on what would have been two of the busiest - and most lucrative - days of the season.

Down the mountain a few miles, 150 vehicles were stranded on the interstate highway as good Samaritans used snowmobiles to bring them food, fuel, and blankets. Greyhound bus passengers who couldn't make it over the mountain pass camped out on couches and cots at Southern Oregon University. Hundreds of tractor-trailers clustered at truck stops, losing money by the hour.

People with SUV's, who've redefined "defensive driving" in the face of criticism from the low-mileage crowd, found themselves neighborhood heroes for a time, the only ones who could get people to church and the grocery store.

While some stores remained shuttered, business was booming for those who jump-started cars, replaced broken water pipes, or fixed cracked windshields.

There's been time for merriment to temper the discomfort. In Chicago, Gordon Imrie and his boys dusted off the "Imrie Flyer," a homemade toboggan built of skis, a laundry shelf, some webbing, old door springs for shock absorbers, and "copious hotglue." "This sled has now been tested at the Soldiers Field toboggan slide," says Mr. Gordon. "It's a screamer on springs."

Meanwhile, it seemed only right that the New England Patriots would beat the Tennessee Titans (17 to 14) Saturday night in weather that even a Green Bay Packers fan would find bracing. At kick-off time in "Ice Bowl II," the temperature had dropped to 4 degrees, the coldest game in Patriots history. Most fans were dressed for a day of ice fishing on Lake Wobegon, and officials lifted the ban on blankets and sleeping bags.

"There was no way I was going to miss this," said Bob Santos, a native New Englander who'd come up from Maryland for the game.

"What cold?" asked Dave Tomas, who'd driven down from New Hampshire for the game.

The forecast for the next day or so across the nation is for warmer weather. Here in the Northwest, ice and snow are turning to slush and the possibility of flooding as the Pineapple Express - warm air from out around Hawaii - moves in. Can locusts or another Mount St. Helens be far behind?

But keep your balaclava handy. Forecasters say more cold is coming. Americans may think they've all become North Dakotans for a time. But in Fargo it was T-shirt weather: a balmy 25 degrees.

Wire service material was used in this report.

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