AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Sub-zero temperatures broke records in the Midwest, the East and even the South. In Chicago it was minus 16 degrees, in Atlanta a record low of six degrees. And the temperature at Baltimore-Washington Airport hovered near zero.
Many people had to change their routines, even our reporter Margot Adler in New York City, where the low of four degrees broke a-century-old record.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: I am standing in Bryant Park across the street from our office. Usually on a Tuesday, I walk a mile and a half to the gym. I took a cab. Usually I walk three and a half miles through the park to the office. I took a subway. And I'm wearing a huge eight foot long Harry Potter Gryffindor-colored scarf that I would probably be too embarrassed to wear on any other day.
But let's go over to the skating rink and see who's here.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Very cold.
ADLER: Very cold?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Very cold.
ADLER: Where are you from?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: From Russia.
ADLER: Well, it's cold there, too, I would imagine.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.
ADLER: So what brought you out here on this cold day? I notice there are only two people skating.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes. We decided to skate, but now I don't know. Will we do it? I don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, it's a bit too cold today maybe to be getting that kind of wind on your face.
ADLER: That's Sariya Renna Benina(ph) and Richard Zara(ph), tourists from Russia and Australia. He says he came here to escape the summer heat. Now, these tourists, who were the only people I met in the park, are out in the cold by choice, but cities all over the Midwest, East and South are dealing with some people who don't have much choice.
Paul Coleman is the president of Maryhaven in Columbus, Ohio, an agency that serves the poor, the addicted, the homeless. In weather like this, Maryhaven attempts to convince the homeless to go to shelters and many do. But sadly, he says...
PAUL COLEMAN: There are some individuals whose mental and/or addictive illness is so severe that they will not come in even in brutally cold temperatures.
ADLER: At that point, he says, if someone clearly cannot care for themselves, Maryhaven will seek help from the Columbus police to get that person to warm shelter. Most people don't think of Nashville, Tennessee, as cold, but you'd be wrong. Yesterday, the temperature never got out of the single digits. One plumbing company reported 500 calls about frozen pipes.
SHAKIKA MATTHEWS: I never seen no weather like this, honestly.
ADLER: Shakika Matthews(ph) sent her kids to be with their father because there's no heat in her house.
MATTHEWS: We're trying to make contact with the landlord. He doesn't want to call back, but as we're standing here breathing in this cold air, that's how it feels inside my home.
ADLER: All together, more than 17,000 flights have been cancelled over the past week due to weather. More than 500 Amtrak passengers were stranded overnight because of blowing and drifting snow in North Central Illinois. Sixty-five miles of throughway were closed from Buffalo to the Pennsylvania border and many roads were closed in upstate New York were 50 mile an hour winds and blowing snow made travel impossible.
Pipes froze all over the country and many disabled people were simply shut in. PJM Interconnection is the electricity grid operator for more than 61 million people in 13 states and the District of Columbia. The company is asking the public to conserve electricity today because of the cold. PJM is urging people to set thermostats lower than usual if health permits to avoid using stoves, dishwashers and dryers in the morning and late afternoon and to turn off lights and appliances that people are not using.
Meteorologists say some 187 million people will feel the effects of what some are calling the polar vortex by the time it ends. Some places were colder than Antarctica. It will be warmer tomorrow and here in New York, people are expecting a Saturday in the mid-50s. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.