Bitter cold hits hard because of economic meltdown

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- William Davis has lived on the streets since the recession cost him his job as a commercial painter. Over the last eight months, he's made it through heat waves, wind storms, rain, snow and ice.

But the 51-year-old finally sought help at a homeless shelter Thursday after enduring a night shivering alongside a downtown wall in temperatures that bottomed out at zero - the coldest reading here in eight years.

"People gave me blankets and food," Davis said. "I had about 15 covers on me. I slept under this parking garage, where the wind came in only one direction. It was pretty rough. I can deal with it. But it's hard."

The bone-numbing blast of arctic air that lingered over the Northeast and Midwest on Thursday was especially hard on Americans whose lives have been upended by the economic meltdown.

Ray Redlich, assistant director of New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis, said the homeless population has changed as the financial crisis has grown worse. Now it includes more people like Davis who just months ago were working for a living.

"We found one young man in a sleeping bag under an overpass. He'd had his home foreclosed on," Redlich said.

The bitter cold killed car batteries, idled ski lifts and sent millions of people scurrying indoors for warmth.

In Pollock, S.D., which dropped to a record-setting 47 below zero, Todd Moser, who works at a gas station, said it took about 10 minutes before the gas pumps started working.

"It just hurts to breathe out there," said Moser, adding that he could only stand it for about five minutes. "After a while your face really just starts to hurt and you've just really got to get back in."

The weather system descended from a large, dry air mass that had been lingering over Alaska and northern Canada for a couple of weeks before moving south. The cold stretched from Montana to Maine and as far south as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Wind-chill advisories were issued in more than a dozen states.

Friday was expected to be even colder in the Northeast. In northern Maine, where one ski area closed and others posted frostbite warnings, communities prepared for the likelihood that the thermometer would stay below zero until Sunday.

The effects of the cold snap, combined with the poor economy, were evident on frigid roads where numerous motorists became stranded.

Matt Ivey, who was driving a AAA tow truck to jump start stalled cars, said many automobiles were in rough shape. "Because of the economy, people don't really have enough money to repair their vehicles," he said.

The economic conditions also meant that merchants such as Craig Caplan had to continue doing business, despite the discomfort of working outdoors.

Caplan, owner of five pushcarts selling hats, scarves and gloves in Boston, said his credit card machine stopped printing because its ink froze.

"With the year we've had, you've got to come out. You can't let the weather be a deterrent," he said, referring to the rocky economy.

Some other people actually benefited from the bitter cold.

Kim Sherva delivered sandwiches in Minneapolis after wrapping herself in five layers, plus a hat, fuzzy earmuffs, gloves and snow boots.

"It's nice to do deliveries when it's really cold, because people tip you better," she said.

Salt trucks in Ohio were combining calcium chloride with salt to help melt road ice. The chemical is used in mixtures when temperatures fall below 20 degrees.

"But when it's this cold, there's not much that works," said Mary Carran Webster, assistant public service director in Columbus. "It's hard to melt anything when you have a wind chill of minus something."

Bicycle messenger Daniel Dominic was dressed in multiple layers as he delivered packages to downtown skyscrapers in Cleveland in single-digit temperatures. Still, he said: "It takes your breath away. It really does."

The nation's cold spots on Thursday were Garrison, N.D., and Pollock, S.D., both of which came in at 47 below zero. Records lows were recorded in Bismarck, N.D., where it was minus 44, and in Aberdeen, S.D., where it was minus 42.

The deep freeze was also notable for the large geographic area affected, said Scott Stephens, a meteorologist with the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

Other memorable cold snaps occurred in 2003 and 2004. The winter of 1994 had the most prolonged extreme cold of recent years, he said.

When the air mass moved south, Alaska warmed up. Fairbanks topped out at 44 degrees Wednesday night after hitting 45 below zero last week.

"Right now as we speak, it's warmer in Fairbanks than in Nashville," said Bruce Terry, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Camp Springs, Md. "That doesn't happen very often."

At the bookstore at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, manager Lucy Beaulieu said she started her car a half-hour before leaving home and bundled up in a fur coat, gloves and hat.

"You go to work - and you go home. You don't make any unnecessary stops where you have to get out of your vehicle," she said. Her advice: "You sit on the couch, read a good book, stay inside."

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Associated Press writers Cheryl Wittenauer in St. Louis; David Sharp and Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine; Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland; Chris Williams in Minneapolis; and Kelsey Abbruzzese in Boston contributed to this report.

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