Icy gusts of arctic air conspired with subfreezing temperatures yesterday to send shivers through the Washington area, stalling cars, downing power lines, driving the homeless into shelters and toppling the ornament atop the National Christmas Tree.
The temperature measured a meager 39 degrees shortly after midnight yesterday and plunged from there to a low of 17 by 1 a.m., compared with a normal high of 46 degrees and low of 30, according to the National Weather Service.
With winds gusting up to 50 mph, the wind-chill factor went well below zero.
This morning was expected to be even colder, with predicted temperatures at daybreak a frigid 8 degrees north and west of the Capital Beltway and a comparatively toasty 15 downtown.
Although the record low of 6 degrees at National Airport in 1884 is likely to remain intact, today is "going to be a real good blast, a cold blast of air," predicted National Weather Service forecaster Larry Wenzel.
The high temperature will barely reach 30 degrees, he said, but the winds will slack off, making the chill slightly easier to endure.
Washington's case of the shivers is part of a one-two punch of strong winds and bitter cold that has much of the Northeast and Midwest in its icy grip. The "Alberta Clipper" cold front shattered century-old record low temperatures in more than a dozen cities in the upper Midwest yesterday, and dumped more than a foot of snow on parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
The chilling effects have been felt as far south as Arkansas and Mississippi, which reported snow in their northern reaches.
Up to eight inches of snow around Lake Michigan and winds gusting to 30 mph forced Vice President Bush to scrap a planned visit to inspect lakeshore erosion in Grand Haven, Mich.
"There's absolutely no reason to take a vice president out in this kind of weather," said Grand Haven Mayor Marge Boon.
No snow is forecast for Washington, but the cold snap is expected to persist through the weekend as another surge of freezing air descends on the region.
Highs will be stalled in the 30s, compared to normal highs in the mid-40s, the National Weather Service's Wenzel said.
At the Pageant of Peace on the Ellipse yesterday morning, a blast of wind blew the roof off the nativity scene. A second gust a few minutes later ripped an ornament from its perch on top of the 30-foot Colorado blue spruce that serves as National Christmas Tree.
"It was like a small tornado came through here," said National Park Service maintenance supervisor Dave Ritenour. "The wind kept picking up, kept picking up."
The pageant was closed for most of the day as a work crew used a cherry picker to right the red and gold ornament and set about rebuilding the manger.
The high winds also damaged trees and power lines. A spokeswoman for the Potomac Electric Power Co., which supplies electricity to the District and most of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, reported that about 2,570 customers were without power shortly before noon yesterday, although power was restored to all but 370 customers by 3 p.m.
In New Carrollton, a utility pole and lines blew over on the 8400 block of Annapolis Road, cutting power to 550 customers. A large tree was toppled on Laytonsville Road in Gaithersburg, leaving another 900 customers without electricity. In both cases, service was restored in about an hour.
The American Automobile Association, which normally fields about 1,000 calls daily from stranded motorists, had been besieged with more than 1,200 by midafternoon and was braced for double the daily load of car trouble, said spokesman Doug Neilson.
"I have a feeling we're going to be flooded tomorrow," Neilson said. He suggested that drivers stop by a service station to test their car batteries, and, if no garage is available, park their cars with the front end facing away from the wind.
"The wind-chill factor is a very real temperature," Neilson said. "It will have the same effect on car parts it does on your skin."
At the newly opened homeless shelter in Anacostia, 425 men sought beds Tuesday night, and officials were planning for even more last night, said Boyd Smith of the Coalition for the Homeless. About 660 people spent Tuesday night at the Community for Creative Non-Violence Shelter on Second Street NW, and Mitch Snyder of the CCNV said more homeless people were expected to seek shelter last night.
"We'll squeeze in anyone who shows up," he said. "To be outside on a night like tonight is extremely dangerous." The cold weather, he said, "hit fairly quickly, too, which is more dangerous. When it comes on that fast you have to worry about people being taken by surprise."
Students at Herndon High School in Fairfax County were sent home early yesterday because the central water main ruptured, apparently because of the cold, school officials said. The main has been repaired and school was to reopen today.
Dennis F. Houlihan, a subschool principal, said the break, which cut off water to the school, was detected at 10:15 a.m. and students were sent home 15 minutes later. He said the break flooded the school's front yard but caused no major damage.
As cold as it may have felt in Washington, it could have been worse. Huron, S.D., won the dubious honor of being the coldest place in the continental U.S. yesterday, with a bone-chilling record 30 degrees below zero at 7 a.m.
"It just didn't feel that cold," said Betty Dornbush, the secretary for the part-time mayor in the town of 13,000. "Out here in South Dakota we're tough. You have to be to survive."