A frigid Arctic air mass, having plagued the Northeast for more than a week, barreled deep into the South on Thursday, dumping a thick blanket of snow over parts of Dixie and sending Florida citrus growers to the misting machines they keep in reserve to protect their trees from cold.
Clover, S.C., was buried under 9 inches of snow, while the Outer Banks of North Carolina, usually insulated by the waters of the Atlantic, received its first significant snowfall in 13 years.
"It's snowing its absolute fanny off," said Bob Eakes, owner of the Red Drum Tackle Shop in Buxton, N.C. Visibility, Eakes said, was 200 yards at best.
Schools, roads and government offices were closed in North Carolina, where temperatures were not expected to climb back above freezing before today.
"We've sold all the snow shovels we had, which was about five," said Renee Thompson, manager of the Ace Hardware store in the coastal town of Nags Head.
The 1,800-mile-long express train of cold, dry air has pushed southward from the Canadian Yukon and Northwest Territories, delivering numbing conditions to much of the nation's eastern half.
At midday in Chicago, it was an even 0 degrees once the wind chill was factored in, and streets, sidewalks and restaurants were eerily empty for a workday.
"You can get a cab easy, man," Raymond Mitchell, a doorman in his 60s, said as he huddled in a service doorway for a smoke. "Look at all them cabs with no fares."
Bill Brader, a grocery store deliveryman, was plainly unhappy. "Lazy people have taken the day off. Then they decide to phone-order their groceries.... I am out here with this cart loaded with cans of soup for some stay-in idiot who probably won't even tip."
A major highway bridge connecting downtown Kansas City, Mo., to its northern suburbs was closed after the cold apparently made it buckle. Similarly, the cold seemingly caused a power line in Milwaukee to contract, cutting off electricity to hundreds of households. The high in the Wisconsin city was expected to be 8 degrees.
In Florida, tourists and locals alike were bracing for the iciest blast yet this winter, with overnight temperatures expected to drop to the teens in the north, the 20s from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, and the 30s in Miami's western suburbs.
Cycling home from work at dusk, Calvin Smith, groundskeeper at a Miami hotel, paused at a sidewalk cafe for a thimbleful of hot, potent Cuban coffee. "This is my antifreeze," he said.
"This is a bitterly cold Arctic air mass," Rusty Pfost, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service's forecast office in Miami, said Thursday. "But it's moving rather quickly. We're going to have one really cold night, which is tonight. Then everything indicates we'll have a quick warm-up."
For the 90,000 people employed by Florida's citrus industry, a jolt of unseasonable cold can spell economic doom. Casey Pace, spokeswoman for Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade association, said the latest weather forecasts were looking better.
"But the growers are still worried, because it's always unpredictable when you deal with Mother Nature," Pace said from the association's offices in Lakeland. "We have a lot of growers saying they are going to run their irrigation overnight."
The plastic sprinklers, which have replaced the smudge pots of yesteryear, spray a mist on the trunks of citrus trees that freezes to form a protective armor. For oranges, grapefruit or other fruit to be harmed, the temperature must remain below 28 degrees for four hours.
Luckily, the only locales where it is expected to remain that cold, north of the Interstate 4 corridor of central Florida, specialize in early ripening varieties of citrus fruit, such as navel oranges, and most of that crop has already been harvested, Pace said.
On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed an executive order eliminating the weight limit on trucks that carry fruits and vegetables so the state's farmers could save as much of their crops as possible before the cold wave hit.
"My heart goes out to these farmers," Bush said. "They have to risk everything every season, and then to have this kind of weather that could be very damaging is sad."
Times researcher John Beckham, in Chicago, and Associated Press contributed to this report.