Polar vortex pain makes its way to Florida

Los Angeles TimesJanuary 8, 2014 

Record-setting cold stunned the Southeast on Tuesday as the chilly "polar vortex" parked over the northern Midwest extended eastward, prompting officials to cancel school and open emergency warming and homeless shelters in areas unaccustomed to sub-zero temperatures.

In Manatee County, homeless shelters were operating at near-capacity even as the brisk weather remained above freezing.

"Bed number 76," said John Kolacki, Salvation Army Men's Shelter director, as he checked in a client at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the facility on 14th Street West near downtown Bradenton.

One after another, men needing shelter from the cold weather lined up at the Salvation Army Shelter -- the only place that shelters men and women in Manatee County, Kolacki said.

Unlike most nights when there is a fee to stay at the shelter, it's free when it gets this cold, Kolacki said.

"They started lining up at 2:30 p.m.," Kolacki said of the men, some of whom carried blankets and duffle bags. "We will proba

bly have around 118, which is what we had Monday and which is close to capacity. We will find some snacks for them."

Capacity is in the 120s in the men's shelter, but on potentially freezing nights no none is turned away, Kolacki said.

The Salvation Army also had a packed women's and family wing Tuesday, Kolacki said.

Thomas Redmond, 55, originally from Connecticut, was one of men getting a warm bed.

"I don't know what I would do without this place and the One Stop Center," Redmond said citing another community resource. "Hopefully, when I get on my feet, I will come back and give both these places a donation. I believe in karma."

It was much worse in more northern climes.

The Midwest freeze set in Monday, when subzero temperatures broke records in Chicago, at 16 degrees below zero and Fort Wayne, Ind., at minus 13. Oklahoma and Texas also saw record-setting cold, with wind chills of 40 below zero.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence issued disaster declarations. More than 500 Amtrak passengers spent the night stranded by snow on three trains headed for Chicago and were rerouted by bus Tuesday morning.

Temperatures reached 6 degrees below zero at a weather station in the north Georgia mountains Tuesday -- the coldest in decades. Wind-chill temperatures in many parts of the state dropped below zero -- colder than many cities in Alaska at the time, meteorologists said.

"Aside from the bone-chilling extremely cold temperatures and wind chill factors, the most widespread impact in the state is school closures," said Ken Davis, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. School was closed in Atlanta and in 66 of the state's 159 counties, 15 of which had also opened warming shelters, Davis said.

There were no school closures in Manatee or Sarasota counties.

While the cold was less severe farther south, it was so unusual that it prompted concern from public safety officials and farmers, particularly in places such as Florida with sensitive citrus crops.

"Luckily, most of the crops grown in Florida are in the southern parts of the state where the temperatures are warmer," said Aaron Keller, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, who said the coldest spots have been in the northern Panhandle where the effect on farmers was "not alarming."

Hoeth said the weather's affect on Florida's crops this week will likely be minimal.

"The cold air finally got to areas of Florida yesterday, but today they'll already be back in the 50s," he said, with the coldest spots north of the larger groves in central and southern Florida.

Hoeth said the cold weather is expected to move out of affected areas to the north and east Wednesday.

"Today and into tomorrow morning is going to be the tail end of the widespread impacts across the country. There's still really cold air up in the central plains, Minnesota, the Dakotas -- but the rest of the country starts to moderate," Hoeth said.

, with temperatures climbing into unseasonably balmy 60s and 70s in Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

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