It's Cold Enough to Snap a Sneaker

Times Staff Writers

Bitter Arctic cold magnified by stiff winds numbed the Northeast on Tuesday, with weather so foul that even meteorologists in a mountaintop observatory in New Hampshire were temporarily stranded.

Millions bundled up, homeless shelters were crowded and phone lines for reporting insufficient heat in buildings were jammed. Cars wouldn't start and stores reported brisk sales of ice-melting chemicals, portable heaters, propane torches and long underwear.

The frigid weather, which has lasted eight days, has caused heating oil prices to rise, and forecasters promise no relief until at least the weekend.

"If you walk outside in your sneakers when it hits 40 below, the soles will get stiff and break right in half," said Andrea Grant, a meteorologist at the private, nonprofit Mt. Washington Observatory, which sits atop the tallest peak in the Northeast, at 6,288 feet.

"We've had the jet stream move south. We're getting a ton of air from the North Pole, and it's just sitting here." As Grant spoke, instruments measured a wind gust of 103 mph. The wind-chill temperature, which represents the combined effects of wind and cold on living things, was 70 below zero.

Adding to the misery were ice and a dense fog that has lasted for six days.

Grant said a neighbor in Berlin, N.H., phoned to say the pipes were freezing in some homes.

Close to the Canadian border, in Caribou, Maine, National Weather Service meteorologist Vic Nouhan said the agency's climate experts had predicted above-normal temperatures for January. "I would say that one is going down in flames," he added.

In New York City, 8,212 single adults crowded into shelters Monday night -- the most since the winter of 1991. As the cold continued, advocates for the homeless criticized the city and warned that the numbers could rise. "We have had monitors out every night," said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. "We see homeless men with mental illness waiting for 12 hours to get a shelter bed. They are forced frequently to sleep on a bare mattress. They are not given a locker, a towel so they can bathe.

Eliza Greenberg, head of Boston's Emergency Shelters Commission, said the city was on high alert. Several homeless shelters temporarily changed their policy, letting clients stay indoors during the day. The body of an apparently homeless man was found under an overpass Tuesday morning and the fatality was attributed to the cold.

Thermometers recorded a temperature of 26 below zero before dawn in Watertown, N.Y. At a ski area in Jay, Vt., the afternoon temperature was 14 below zero. The last time the mercury climbed above freezing in New York City was Jan. 13, and a wind-chill of minus 10 was expected in some suburbs.

"These days, some of the newer cars have the outside temperature on the dashboard," said Robert Diamond, a corporate senior advisor who lives in Scarsdale, N.Y., a short commute from Manhattan. "It becomes a fascination as you are watching the numbers go down.

"The difference between this year and many other years isn't the snow. It is the penetrating cold."

To protect against the cold, Stan Tice, a Manhattan private detective, wore a hat, turtleneck sweater, vest, scarf, warm pants and heavy shoes on Tuesday.

"When you do a stakeout in this kind of weather, you have to keep your feet moving," he said. "Tap dancing is a survival trait."

The frigid weather has helped drive up the price of heating oil for future delivery, said Jeff Mower, editor in chief of Platts Oilgram Price Report.

He said that on Jan. 8, contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange for a gallon of heating oil were 83.21 cents. On Tuesday, the figure was 89.47 cents. But he said increased demand did not signal a shortage of the fuel, which is used to heat many homes in the region.

"Right now in the Northeast, there are about 52 million or 53 million barrels, according to the Department of Energy, which isn't low," Mower reported. "Nothing dangerous."

Throughout the region, the National Weather Service warned that frostbite was a real possibility -- for people and pets.

"This is not a night to let your pets outside, regardless of how mischievous they can be," said Jason Allard, acting New Hampshire state climatologist.

At Le Chien Pet Salon in Manhattan, manager Edward Alava said cold-weather clothing such as scarves, cashmere sweaters, boots and mink coats for dogs (at $595, depending on the size) were selling briskly.

Back atop Mt. Washington, the shift normally changes every Wednesday, when a 12-passenger snow tractor makes it up. Today's trip was being postponed, said Scott Henley, the station's marketing manager.

Grant said that even after an extra furnace was turned on, the temperature inside was 59 degrees, and she was wearing three or four layers of clothing.

But Grant said she had seen worse. "I spent a year down in Antarctica," she said.


Goldman reported from New York, Mehren from Boston.

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