Blast of Arctic Air Stuns Eastern United States

Alabama was colder than Alaska, water fountains froze into ice sculptures in South Carolina and Florida shivered through an Arctic air blast that deadened car batteries in the Northeast and prompted scattered Midwest power outages.

As Southerners awaited an expected weekend thaw, the Northeast persisted under the bitterly cold air from Canada that sent temperatures plunging in some places below minus 30 degrees and left even longtime residents reluctant to venture outdoors.

Quentin Masters braved the chilly weather, making a trip to a Syracuse, N.Y., post office to mail his sister a gift for her birthday Monday.

"It was almost too cold to come down," he said, but he added, "I don't want to be late."

Single-digit temperatures and subzero wind chills were expected in western New York through the weekend, with more seasonable conditions moving in early next week.

To Southerners, who rarely see temperatures so cold, the icebox-like weather was the most jarring. Construction worker Allen Johnson wore a gray beanie, flannel shirt, long johns and boots as he stopped for coffee in Montgomery, Ala., after an overnight low of 22 degrees Friday.

"No matter how bad it is, it could be worse — we could be in Anchorage, Alaska," Johnson said. Actually, the temperature was about 20 degrees warmer in Anchorage on Friday.

Freezing temperatures threatened to kill picturesque Spanish moss hanging from Gulf Coast trees. In Spartanburg, S.C., a hard freeze coated a water fountain in shimmering icicles. And it was too cold to bet on dogs in West Virginia.

In Tennessee, Heather Davis, of NashvillePAW Magazine, watched her photographer unsuccessfully try to coax their cover model, a white poodle named Cotton, to pose outdoors for the animal publication. Cotton, who is up for adoption, ran to the car and didn't want to leave.

"I don't think I realized how cold it was," Davis said, laughing.

But gusting winds were no laughing matter in Ohio, where temperatures pushed to their lowest this winter and forced scattered power outages. Lows ranged from minus 6 degrees in Cincinnati to minus 14 degrees in Dayton and Toledo — just missing record lows for Friday's date.

Thousands in Ohio and Illinois lost power for several hours while Charleston, W.Va.-based Appalachian Power, which delivers electricity to more than 1 million customers Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, had record electricity demand as businesses and homes cranked up the heat.

In Columbus, Ohio, 45-year-old Brandon Champney beat the cold by visiting the orchid exhibit at the Franklin Park Conservatory — a deliciously climate-controlled 72 degrees.

"It's beautiful, warm, great," Champney said.

The cold claimed at least six lives and contributed to dozens of traffic accidents. One death involved a man in a wheelchair who was found in subzero temperatures stuck in the snow, a shovel in his hand, outside his home in Des Moines, Iowa.

In central Pennsylvania, AAA fielded a spike in calls from motorists whose batteries went dead or door locks froze shut. Wind chills were as low as 25 degrees below zero in greater Pittsburgh.

In Michigan, a winter storm watch was in effect for parts of the Lower Peninsula, where up to 8 inches of snow could fall by Sunday morning, the National Weather Service said.

And in Illinois, where a low of 32 degrees below zero was recorded in a north-central area Friday, the weather service predicted only modest weekend relief — sort of. The mercury was expected to head Saturday into the 20s in northern Illinois and the 30s in southern Illinois.

"The heat wave begins," meteorologist Tim Halbach quipped.