COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A bitter chill is settling in across the eastern half of the country, threatening crops, closing schools and making Charleston, S.C., feel more like New York City. Records snows were reported over the weekend in Vermont, and farmers in Florida scrambled Monday to save strawberries and tomatoes.
The deep freeze will last for at least the rest of the week. The National Weather Service said the mercury could fall below zero in St. Louis later this week for the first time since 1999.
In Burlington, Vt., a weekend snowstorm dumped more than 33 inches, breaking a single-storm record of nearly 30 inches set in 1969.
Most took it in stride, but some took it too far: Vermont State Police cited a man after stopping him pulling a sled — with a rider in it — behind his car on Interstate 89 on Sunday. He was cited for driving with a suspended license.
It was a similar scene in upstate New York, where so-called “lake effect snow” blanketed parts of the state with more than 3 feet.
In Maine, the search continued for an 18-year-old snowmobiler who disappeared shortly after the storm started Friday night, and a small plane crashed into a river channel there Monday after reporting ice buildup on the wings.
The weather caused hundreds of school closings and delays in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the North Carolina mountains.
Homeless shelters, especially in the Southeast, braced for a crush of people and said they would not turn anyone away.
In Florida, farmers prepared for a long week trying to protect their crops. In Polk County — between Tampa and Orlando — temperatures were in the high 20s and strawberry farmers turned on sprinklers to create an insulation of ice for the berries.
“The problem now is that we have a weeklong freeze predicted,” said Ted Campbell, executive director for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. “It’s an endurance test.”
Parts of central Florida could see lows below freezing nearly every day this week. Even Key West isn’t immune. Temperatures there the next couple of days are expected to barely creep above 60 degrees with a stiff north wind — nowhere near average highs in the 70s that draw winter tourists.
The duration of the cold snap is unusual, especially in the South, where the weather is typically chilly for just a day or two before temperatures rebound into the 50s.
Instead, places like Birmingham, Ala., and Charlotte, N.C., will see temperatures above freezing for just a couple of hours a day all week long. Many Southern homes aren’t built to handle that type of cold, with uninsulated pipes and heat pumps that will have to run all the time just to keep things barely comfortable.
The phones were already ringing off the hook Monday at an agency in Greenville, S.C., that uses federal grants to help people with their heating bills.
“I’m very worried, especially for those who are not accustomed to seeking assistance,” said program coordinator Betty Cox.
Firefighters are also bracing for more calls this week. Five people died in a fire Friday in rural Plymouth, Mo., likely caused by an unattended fireplace, while three people were killed Saturday in Honea Path, S.C., when either a space heater or a stove started a fire in a mobile home.
“This could be a busy week — actually a couple of busy weeks,” said David Berry, a volunteer fire chief in Alabama. “It’s cold and folks are trying to do whatever it takes to stay warm.”
Contributing to this report were John Curran in Montpelier, Vt., Tamara Lush in Tampa, Fla., and John Raby in Charleston, W.Va.