The arctic air that has had the East and Plains shivering for days spilled into the South on Thursday, bringing freak snowdrifts to North Carolina's Outer Banks and sending Florida citrus growers scrambling to save their freezing crops.
"It's snowing its absolute fanny off," said Bob Eakes, a tackle shop owner in Buxton, N.C., where 40-mph winds created a beachfront blizzard that obliterated views of the nearby Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. "It's really pretty, if you could see it."
The first significant snowfall along the North Carolina coast in 13 years brought up to a foot of snow to the barrier islands, and the high winds piled it in drifts twice that deep. Dare County called in snow plows from the state because it doesn't have any of its own, and residents didn't have much luck finding snow shovels.
"We've sold all the snow shovels we had, which was about five," said Nags Head Ace Hardware manager Renee Thompson, adding that most shovels he sells in the beach community are for sand.
The unusual snowfall came after the arctic blast collided with a front pushing up from the South that was fueled by moisture from the Atlantic. The storm moved offshore by nightfall.
The normally balmy fringes of the South finally got a taste of the frigid air that's been hurtling in from Canada for more than a week and has plunged most of the country east of the Rockies into a deep freeze.
Snow ranging from a dusting to up to 12 inches blanketed the Carolinas, Tennessee and parts of Virginia, closing schools and snarling commutes. Cleveland County, N.C., got as much snow in a few hours as it gets in a year.
In North Carolina alone, more than 1,100 accidents were reported during the morning commute and three homeless men found near a Charlotte interstate were hospitalized for exposure.
Wind-chill warnings and advisories were issued for more than two dozen states and freezing temperatures were expected to dip into single digits across much of the South. North Florida expected temperatures in the teens and even central Florida was expected to drop into the 20s, with blustery winds making it feel even colder.
"We couldn't believe how cold it was," said tourist Martin King, who arrived this week in Orlando from Bristol, England. "We brought shorts, T-shirt, and I had to go out and buy another coat."
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed an emergency order to eliminate the weight limit on trucks so growers could harvest as much fruit as possible and get it to market before it was damaged by the cold. At stake is Florida's $9.1 billion-a-year citrus crop, most of which is still on the trees.
"Time is of the essence in getting fruit to the plant," said Tom Rogers, a Highland City grower who expected to see damage to oranges and grapefruit.
Near Tampa, the state's strawberry crop was also in jeopardy. Growers usually combat freezes by turning on sprinklers to give the fruit a protective glaze of ice, but winds of more than 20 mph were just blowing the water around.
"We're doing everything we can, but there's no system around that's going to provide you with protection with the kind of winds we're talking about," said Chip Hinton, spokesman for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "But that doesn't mean we're not going to try."
There was little snow, sleet or ice around Atlanta, but school officials decided to keep children at home Friday for no other reason than the bitter cold. Some feared children would end up stuck on stalled buses.
"We think of the kids standing at the bus stop and walking to school," said Spencer Ragsdale, a spokesman for Dekalb County schools. Officials in seven northern Florida counties also called off school Friday.
Schools were closed Thursday in Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, West Virginia and even in Wisconsin and upstate New York. It was the first "snow day" of the season in Syracuse, N.Y., which has received nearly 8 feet of snow this winter.
The cold was suspected of causing a major highway bridge in Kansas City, Mo., to buckle, closing a route used by 94,000 cars every day. In nearby Kansas City, Kan., officials called off greyhound racing at the Woodlands track.
In Minnesota, the coldest winter in two years continued with highs of 10 below zero.
"It's ridiculously cold," said Dave Rowan of Columbia Heights, as he fueled up his car. "I can't wait to come home and lay in my warm bed."
In Wisconsin, where the high was expected to be just 8 degrees, Marathon County closed its outdoor skating rinks because of the cold. The clock atop the Brown County Courthouse in Green Bay stopped, as it does occasionally when the mercury dips below 10 degrees.
Cliff Bacon, whose job is to retrieve carts from a grocery store parking lot in Wausau, Wis., said he had meant to buy long johns this week but forgot.
"I'm kind of regretting that now," he said.