For many Washingtonians, the simple decision to venture outside yesterday seemed like an act of heroism. Lung-searing temperatures topped out at a meager 22 degrees, the coldest day of the year and just the latest slap in a frigid string stretching back to Jan. 14.
Shelters sent vans to collect the homeless from the life-threatening cold, crews worked to fix broken water mains, and Pepco announced that customers nudging up their thermostats to combat the morning chill sent power demands to their highest point in years.
The entire East Coast was gripped in a frigid embrace. Parts of the Outer Banks were blanketed by 10 inches of snow, cold-weather advisories were issued for points as far south as Corpus Christi, Tex., and Florida citrus growers scrambled to protect their crops.
Across the Washington region, memories of the mild winters of the past few years faded fast.
This was Ben Kramer's unscientific assessment: "just brutal."
He was in a position to know. Kramer and his 12-man crew rushed to dry off the vehicles that emerged, wet and shining, from his Wheaton Speedy Car Wash.
The complication: toweling the cars off before the beads of rinse water turned to ice.
In the District, plunging temperatures and a biting wind over the past couple of days have increased the number of calls to the 24-hour hypothermia hotline. "The calls are coming in every 30 seconds," said Debra Daniels, D.C. Department of Human Services spokeswoman, who urged people to call -- 1-800-535-7252 -- if they see homeless people who need shelter.
Suburban shelters mobilized, too. Progress Place in Silver Spring stayed open all day, said Montgomery County spokesman Mary Anderson. So did Alexandria's Carpenter's Shelter, Northern Virginia's largest.
The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority said it was averaging five or six calls a day because of broken pipes or water in the streets. Spokeswoman Libby Lawson said most calls were to report problems with smaller pipes, not large water mains. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission coped with about 26 water main breaks in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said spokesman Chuck Brown.
Pepco said it was able to meet a record demand, which peaked at 5,125 megawatts. "It knocked off the old record set nine years ago," spokesman Robert Dobkin said.
Three D.C. schools, Hine Junior High, Park View Elementary and Webb Elementary, had no heat in some classrooms, though details were unavailable from the school system.
Washington's cold snap -- only one day has been above 33 degrees since Jan. 14 -- is taking a toll on companies that depend on good, or at least warmer, weather.
"Basically, we're shut down," said Anthony Victor, owner of AVC Construction in Annandale. His company pours concrete, a task that requires temperatures of at least 30 degrees.
"The second week of January, we did three days," he said. "The third week, we did two days, and basically, this week, we did nothing at all."
Others saw gifts in the frigid air. Eddie Lloyd, owner of Just a Vacation, a Hyattsville travel agency, cursed the cold but admitted: "Travel agencies that sell to the Caribbean lust for weather like this. You give me five days of 20-degree weather and a snowstorm at the end, and my phone rings off the hook." His recommendation? Grand Bahama, where yesterday's high was about 50 degrees warmer than Washington's.
Another industry welcomed the drop in mercury: garbage collectors. "We kind of look forward to cold weather, actually," said Brad Howard, general manager of BFI Waste Services in Capitol Heights. "The trash doesn't stink as much."
Yesterday's low, measured at Reagan National Airport, was 14 degrees. The record low for Jan. 23 is zero degrees, set in 1936. The average high for January is 42 degrees. While yesterday was "definitely a cold January 23," said National Weather Service meteorologist Michelle Margraf, "as a season, it's not record-breaking in any form or fashion." Through Jan. 20, she said, this winter stacks up as the 53rd coldest out of 150 years of records. It should get warmer next week, Margraf said, with highs in the upper 30s by Tuesday and in the mid-40s Wednesday.
Back at Wheaton Speedy Car Wash, employee George Raynor talked in survivalist terms.
"It's like Jack London said about Alaska: The number one rule of living in Alaska is don't get wet." That and layers: Yesterday, Raynor was clad in two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, two T-shirts, a shirt, a wool sweater, a hooded sweat shirt and a jacket. A ski mask covered everything but his eyes. His mouth was marked with a lacy scrim of frost.
For some, warm apparel proved dangerous. Arturo Ayala, 28, a Fairfax restaurant worker, braced against the wind by wrapping a scarf around his face. There was only one problem: The slit he'd arranged for his eyes kept falling closed, and on his way to a Fairfax City bus stop, he bumped into a telephone pole and a trash can.
"It doesn't hurt any more than the cold does," he shrugged.
The storm that covered the Outer Banks was produced by a giant blast of cold air that pushed into the central United States from Alaska and western Canada, according to the National Weather Service. The usual spots shivered in almost surreal cold, places like Williston, N.D., where the temperature was 22 degrees below zero. But cities less accustomed to plunging temperatures also were affected.
The Outer Banks had its first significant snowstorm in 13 years. "I've never been in a blizzard before. I guess this is what it looks like," said Susan Boncek, who owns the Sandspur Hotel in Nags Head.
Schools closed in cities throughout the Southeast. The cold swelled Nashville's homeless shelters to capacity. "There were cars in the ditches all over the place," said Paul Lamb, a ticket-taker at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.
The approach of cold weather sent Florida citrus growers into varying states of panic. They are in the midst of harvesting a long slate of varieties.
Casey Pace of Citrus Mutual, a trade group that represents 11,000 citrus growers, estimated that enough citrus to fill 145 million 90-pound boxes is still on trees waiting to be picked. Growers flooded groves with water to raise temperatures or triggered sprinkler systems to mist their trees. Only one-fourth of the winter crop has been picked, she said.
Gov. Jeb Bush (R) issued an emergency order waiving the weight limit for trucks hauling citrus to help farmers racing to harvest crops before the temperatures dip lower in coming days.
"This is going to be a tough one," said Terence McElroy, a Florida Department of Agriculture spokesman.
Manuel Roig-Franzia reported from Miami. Staff writers Karlyn Barker, Annie Gowen, Leef Smith and Peter Whoriskey contributed to this report.