Rivers and bays that almost never freeze have frozen. Schools in the Midwest have closed their doors for lack of heating fuel. Some factories from South Carolina to New Jersey sit idle, unable to get the natural gas they need to function.
In the Washington area, each successive month since October has seen temperatures dip further and further below normal, while heating bills have risen dramatically. The snow and ice coating streets here have cuased local governments to nearly exhaust their stores of melting salt, which is now in critical short supply. On Maryland's Eastern Shore, watermen can do little more than stare at their ice-locked boats.
On the Cheaspeake Bay, which rarely freezes over, several barges stand paralyzed by thick ice, including two laden with a total of over a million gallons of oil.
From the Continental Divide to the Chesapeake Bay, from Texas to New England, the coldest winter in years has left an icy glaze over two-thirds of the country. Keeping warm has become a major and expensive undertaking, getting around has become a slippery, treacherous battle often amid cars that have stalled or never got started.
In many places, the cold snap has frozen people out of their jobs, while fuel oil suppliers have been working 16-hour days to keep up with the growing demand.
And there is no relief in sight.
A new snowfall is expected to begin in the Washington area today, adding at least an inch to the frozen remains of the last three snows, and then change to sleet or freezing rain as the temperatures reach the low to mid-30s.
The unfortunate combination of snow and ice with the frigid temperatures has meant thousands of dollars in road-clearing and school-closing costs piled on to local governments which have already spent millions more than they had planned on heating.
If, as national forecasters predict, the coming month is as cold as the last one, Montgomery County schools could spend 25 per cent more to keep warm than was the same time last year. The county has already plowed $200,000 into its road-clearing operations. The District has also exceeded its snow removal budget.
The villain behind the dropping temperatures and the frozen car engines, according to meteorologists is the jet stream miles above us, which has veered from its normal path, bringing colder air than usual much farther south than usual.
"Sometimes the upper level winds get pushed out of kilter in one way or another," explained Bob Dickson a member of the federal government's long-range weather prediction group.
For reasons Dickson said "are not very well understood," the upper-level winds that usually curve gently north into Canada then gently south into the Northeastern United States have bent sharply up toward the Arctic Circle, then have come plummeting downward across the Central and Eastern United States, reaching as far south as Texas.
The result has been a massive upswing in demand for heating fuels, at a time when a fuel such as natural gas, which is being conserved to accomodate the demands to future decades, is in increasingly short supply.
West Virginia's Columbia Gas Transmission Co., which supplies 85 per cent of Washington Gas Light's fuel and also supplies 75 other distributors around the eastern half of the country, has increased its deliveries 32 per cent in the last three months of 1976, compared to the same period in 1975.
The Potomac Electric Power Company, to generate the electricity needed by the homes and business of the District and the Maryland suburbs, used 54 per cent more coal and 22 per cent more oil in December than thay had in December last year.
"It's the cold and the wind that's keeping the home heating bills up," said Pepco spokesman Gail Butler. "Especially the wind, in homes that have only a little insulation." However, she said she could see no problem in providing the electricity for the area, and a spokesman for Washington Gas Light also said, "We do not forsee problems."
The Virginia Electric and Power Company (Vepco) last Tuesday achieved a record output of electrical power during a 24-hour period, surpassing a previous record (which was set during a summer when demand is normally heavier) by 5.2 per cent. On Dec. 21, Pepco set a wintertime record for its output of electricity.
Spokesmen for both companies said heating needs caused the dramatic upswings in demand for electricity.
The intense cold has created a critical energy shortage and critics in the Tidewater area of Virginia where natural gas is used widely for heating and manufacturing processes.
"We're right up against it in Richmond - we haven't been faced with such serve fuel problems since 1851," said Cy Lynn, assistant to the Richmond city manager.
Because gas consumption in the city has risen drastically since the cold spell began, the city utilities department cut off the gas supply at seven industrial plants that under normal conditions would be guaranteed service.
The plants - four Philip Morris, Inc., facilities, Nabisco, Inc., the Virginia Folding Box Co. and Union Camp Corp. - all have the means to turn to alternative fuel sources. But, according to Lynn, if a citywide appeal for gas conservation does not bring results within the next 10 days, the city will curtail - or possibly cut off - service to industries and some large commercial customers which cannot convert.
In that case, work stoppages and layoffs would be likely, Lynn said.
Residential gas consumers, which account for 71 per cent of the city's total gas usage, will continue to receive fuel despite the shortage, according to Lynn.
The city's interruptable customers - those which pay a reduced price for gas and receive the fuel only when it is available in large amounts - have not been allocated gas since Nov. 1.
Vepco, the major gas supplier in the Tidewater area, has also cut off service to its interruptable customers and asked all other customers that can use alternative fuels to do so. In the meantime, Vepco officials have asked The Federal Energy Administration for permission to purchase propane gas and additional amounts of natural gas from transmission companies in order to have enough fuel on hand-for the company's 110,000 residential customers in the Tidewater area.
At the Federal Power Commission yesterday, government leaders and businessmen from the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and other states warned that schools will be shut, tens of thousands of workers will be jobless and public health will be endangered if new natural gas supplies are not allowed within days.
Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.) joined the governor of North Carolina, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.S.C.) and other spokesmen in seeking FPC authority for gas pipelines to buy natural gas from Texas that is not subject to federal price controls.
While conceding that emergency gas purchases will be costly to consumers, the witnesses yesterday said economic survival is at stake. "The issue is whether children can go to school and whether thousands of working men and women can get their paychecks," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D.S.C.).
Bauman said some plants already faced closings in the Salisbury area on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and officials of business and government in Danville, Va., testified that they face a shortage of supplies for commercial and residential consumption.
The danger of losing their natural gas is only one of the Eastern Shore's worries. For the first time in at least five years, a crust of ice from four to eight inches thick blankets most of the Chesapeake Bay. "Everything from the Bay Bridge up is frozen," said Robert J. Rubelman, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
As the ice closed in, most ship traffic on the bay ceased - some of those who tried to break through the ice found their efforts futile. Three barges, two of them carrying a total of 1,365,000 gallons of oil have run aground in Tangier Bay on the Eastern Shore. All are iced in. Two tugboats that were towing the oil barges are stuck as well.
According to Lt. Robin Crusse of the Coast Guard's Baltimore station, no oil is leaking from the grounded barges - but there is a danger that ice chunks, stirred up by the 20-knot winds gusting in the area, might crash into and puncture the hulls.
The ice is also putting the three boats of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources into operation fulltime, to keep open the channels between such isolated areas as Tangier and Smith Islands and the mainland, which provides island residents with food and fuel.
The Watermen in the bay communities of Maryland and Virginia, however, have less and less money to pay for their needs. Ice has looked in almost all their boats - except those in Annapolis habor - and their fishing grounds. All of the rivers running into the bay have frozen.
The result is that the oystermen can harvest no oysters. Food processing plants thus have nothing to clean and can, and more than 5,000 people sit idly waiting for a few warm, rainy days to melt the ice.
It's almost a total loss for us. It's about as bad as it can get," said Bob Prier, executive secretary of the Chespeake Bay Seafood Association. Most of the state's 70 processing plants are shut down.
As a result of these problems, oysters, snapper, rockfish and lobsters are all scare in retail stores and prices have increased. Oysters are up to $10 a bushel, about 10 per cent more than they cost at this time last year. "That's the highest I've ever seen them," Prier said.
The price of salt for frozen highways has not risen - but the supply is disappearing. Local governments have enough on hand for two more snows at most, according to Bill Gilbert of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.A desperate hunt is on for new supplies, he added.
Oficials for major U.S. salt suppliers, however, said that the local shortages are due to a lag in shipping time. There's enough salt in the country, but it itsn't where it's needed.
Alfred Krall, a spokesman for the International Salt Co. in Scranton, Pa., which supplies the District and Montgomery County, said that municipalities are traditionally reluctant to stockpile salt, and have been caught short in the current rash of storms.
So far this winter, the District has used 14,000 tons of salt on its streets. It started the winter with 25,000 tons and has put in emergency orders for more. According to Gilbert, the Virginia Department of highways has only 875 tons left to keep Fairfax and Arlington streets clear. One storm requires at least 1,000 tons for this area, he added.
One of three Baltimore salt suppliers for the Northern Virginia area has run out of salt, while two others are on their last reserves, according to A. C. Baird, of the Virginia State Hightway Department.
The ice problem extends beyond the frozen streets of the metropolitan area. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports that the Ohio River, one of the nation's most important commercial inland waterways, seems likely to freeze from bank to bank by this weekend - for the first time since 1948.
The frozen Potomac River near Paw Paw, W. Va., aided a man being hunted by Maryland and West Virginia state troopers as a suspect in the killing of two West Virginia troopers. Repeatedly, as one state's trooper's were closing in on him, the suspect would dash across the ice to the other state.
Farther west, in Missouri, Arkansas and Minnesota, a new winter storm brought a mixture of sleet, freezing rain and snow yesterday. The area is still struggling to free itself from the remnants of the last storm.
Lake Erie is almost completely frozen and forecasters say Lake Michigan will probably freeze over for only the fourth time this century.
Frozen ground in the Roanoke area coupled with a hay shortage that resulted from a drought last spring have made survival difficult for cattle. Many Roanoke farmers have been forced to sell cattle in record numbers at lower than normal prices.
The intense cold, and the stress it can bring, leads to anger, frustration and depression among the people who must deal with it, according to psychiatric experts. Said one: "Being caught in the cold is frightening and its painful."
Dr. Domeena Renshaw, a staff psychiatrist at Illinois' Loyola University medical school added that even the heavy clothing causes problems. "It's hard even to turn your head. This produces anxiety."