Cold weather continues: D.C. area temps may remain subfreezing until midday Thursday

After suffering through wind-whipped record cold that kept some kids home, caused car batteries to die and pipes to burst, and made heavily layered pedestrians look like plump sausages, Washington area residents were warned that they could expect more of the same Wednesday.

The temperature at daybreak Wednesday might tick a bit higher — breaking into the low teens — and the blistering wind is forecast to abate, but the freezing weather was expected to persist until mid-day Thursday.

The trepidation that caused some school districts to shut down and others to open late on Tuesday seemed likely to diminish with the wind.

In Alexandria, Amanda Ramirez, 20, stood among the usual caucus of smokers outside federal office buildings and restaurants. They puffed furiously on their cigarettes, swinging arms and moving their feet from side to side to keep warm between drags.

“You can’t play with this stuff,” she said. “Lots of layers.”

The cold weather, she said, was almost enough to persuade her to quit smoking. “It’s like . . . this isn’t worth it.”

The torture of frigid air and high winds had people recalibrating their desires across much of America on Tuesday. Along the East Coast, the thermometer ranged from below zero to near freezing almost everywhere but southern Florida, where the dip into the 50s felt cruelly harsh to residents there.

Record lows were set: 4 degrees in New York, 6 degrees in Charlotte, 7 degrees in Birmingham, Ala., and 19 degrees in Pensacola, Fla., where the streets were deserted. In all, it was said that 187 million people would feel the effect of a temporary shift to the south of the polar vortex, a band of frigid air that circles the North Pole.

Utility companies across the country begged customers to conserve power, and one in South Carolina used 15-minute rolling blackouts in its struggle to meet demand. Snow that swept in with the subzero temperatures was blamed for deaths in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.

In Prince George’s County, authorities were investigating the death of a man who was found unresponsive outside a business Tuesday morning, when temperatures were in the single digits.

The region’s social service agencies and volunteers started seeking out the homeless Monday afternoon to try to get them into shelters before the coldest weather hit. Agencies opened extra warming centers and placed extra beds in shelters, only to find themselves still short of space. The District’s shelter manager, Allison Smith, said 151 trips were made to bring people in from the streets. In Alexandria, 48 people used the city’s emergency shelter. Arlington County’s shelter reached its capacity of 75 and had to set up additional cots for the homeless at the county jail.

Thousands of flights were delayed or canceled, and Amtrak trains between Washington and New York were delayed. Amtrak said that on Wednesday, fewer Acela and Northeast Regional trains will run that route because of the extreme cold.

A record low of 1 degree was set Tuesday morning at Dulles International Airport. Although the low of 6 degrees in the District wasn’t a record for the date, it was the coldest the city has been since 1996.

Martin Nkwenti ticked off the hidden layers of clothing he was wearing as he unloaded a refrigerated truck outside a catering company at 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW.

A pair of long johns. Two pairs of sweatpants, then work pants. A T-shirt, two sweaters, one sweatshirt and two jackets (one with a hood), all topped off with his big work jacket. And three pairs of gloves and two pairs of socks.

Still cold?

“Yes,” said Nkwenti, a native of the Central African nation of Cameroon. “In Cameroon, they got two seasons — warm and wet.”

A few hearty souls took the weather in stride and continued their normal routines. After making the four-mile trek on his bicycle from his home in Logan Circle to his office at the District’s Department of Transportation, Eric Stults sounded a lot like a Boy Scout. “It can be done,” Stults said. “You just have to be prepared.”

When Stults hopped on his bicycle, he said, he had on two pairs of socks, long underwear, wind pants, wool slacks, three jackets, a scarf, two pairs of gloves and two skullcaps under his bike helmet.

“I was almost sweaty by the time I got to the office,” Stults said.

Stults said he grew up delivering newspapers in Ohio. Rain, shine, sleet, snow, frigid air — none of it got in the way of paper route. Then he spent 13 years in Minnesota, bicycling year-round.

The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang forecast a cold start to Wednesday before the temperature reaches a high of 31. They forecast 39 for Thursday and a practically balmy 57 by Saturday.

The cold attacked more than the core temperature of humans. Twenty-three patients at George Washington University Hospital had to be moved after broken pipes flooded their rooms.

By Tuesday afternoon, DC Water had recorded 550 calls about frozen pipes or dropping water pressure as pipes in homes and businesses began to freeze. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which provides water to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, said its crews were struggling to keep up with 38 broken water mains. Fairfax Water reported three pipe breaks Tuesday, a spokeswoman said.

Four cars that were left unattended as they were being warmed up were stolen Tuesday morning in Prince George’s County, police said. That was in addition to the four stolen one morning last week. “Don’t warm it & leave it!” the police said on Twitter.

AAA said it received a record 19,000 calls Monday from stranded drivers, most of them with dead batteries and deflated tires caused by the cold. With 2,377 crews out Tuesday, up from the norm of about 900, the automobile club had received 7,260 calls for help by late afternoon.

Those calls made for a busy— and chilly — day for Tony Burns, a tow-truck driver. By 11 a.m., he’d responded to nearly a half-dozen calls. “Very cold and very busy,” he said. The most difficult maneuver of the day proved to be towing a Jeep Grand Cherokee off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The vehicle’s owner, Toni Coates, who was bundled in a burgundy parka, broke into a grin as Burns pulled up. She said the car started smoking so she knew she had to pull over. “I’m guessing it’s some kind of hose,” she said.

In Landover, where AAA Mid-Atlantic’s fleet of emergency roadside assistance and battery trucks were being dispatched, drivers and support staff were in good spirits. Jokes about the cold and the mummy-like appearance of drivers were flying.

Dana Barnes made sure every driver who came through had at least one pack of hand warmers. “Before you go out, make sure you have your hand warmers,” he repeated over and over again.

Just after 6 a.m. Tuesday, as temperatures dipped into the single digits, Fairfax County police received a frantic 911 call. The man on the line didn’t speak much English, but he was shouting for help. When officers arrived at the scene, the shoulder of the road near Nutley Street and Virginia Center Boulevard, they found a woman covered in blankets in the back seat of a Toyota SUV. She peeled back covers to reveal a big surprise: a newborn girl she had just delivered.

The baby appeared to be fine.

“The mother was giving an ‘okay’ sign,” said Lucy Caldwell, a police spokeswoman. “That was a cold, frosty birth.”

Nick Anderson, Mark Berman, Emma Brown, Lynh Bui, Paul Duggan, Dana Hedgpeth, Justin Jouvenal, Michael Laris, Lyndsey Layton, Michael E. Ruane, Robert Samuels, T. Rees Shapiro, Katherine Shaver, Donna St. George, Victoria St. Martin, Annys Shin, Patrick Svitek Ovetta Wiggins, Debbi Wilgoren and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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