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The prospect of a weekend break offered little comfort to those enduring icy conditions, brutal winds and temperatures as low as minus 36 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 37 Celsius) in the Midwest and 3F (-16C) on the East Coast, according to the National Weather Service.
In Washington, where the low hit 10F (-12C) and was expected to peak at only 24F (-4C), a small crowd of tourists braved the cold to take pictures outside the White House.
"We're from a hot country. ... Heavens, it's very cold," said Vijen Nadasan, 49, a tourist from Johannesburg, South Africa, who planned to spend the day sightseeing with his wife and daughter. "We've got to fight it out, right? Stay as warm as much as possible and fight it out."
The bitter cold was due to a southward displacement of the polar vortex, a stratospheric wind pattern that normally swirls over the North Pole.
In Minnesota and Upper Michigan, people battled temperatures as low as minus 25F (minus 31C), said Andrew Orrison, a weather service forecaster.
Central and northern Wisconsin had weather of minus 20F (-29C) and parts of northern Illinois, including parts of the Chicago area, saw temperatures between minus 15F (minus 26C) and minus 10F (minus 23C), he said.
The cold snap brought bitterly cold weather to the East Coast. The overnight low in Boston was at minus 5F (minus 21C) and Islip, New York, on Long Island had a record low of minus 3F (-16C), according to the weather service.
However, relatively balmier weather was on the horizon. By the weekend, Chicago was expected to bask in snow-melting highs in the mid-40s to low 50s Fahrenheit, along with other parts of the Midwest.
"We're gradually seeing the core of the Arctic air mass begin to shift out to the East and up towards Canada," Orrison said in a telephone interview. "It'll be a much different air mass than what we've seen the last couple of days."
The cold has caused at least 12 deaths since Saturday across the Midwest, according to officials and news media reports. Some died in weather-related traffic accidents, others from apparent exposure to the elements.
It has been more than 20 years since a similar Arctic blast covered a swath of the Midwest and Northeast, according to the weather service.
More than 30 record lows were shattered across the Midwest. Cotton, Minnesota had the lowest national temperature recorded on Thursday at minus 56F (minus 48C) before the weather warmed up, the weather service reported.
US homes and businesses used record amounts of natural gas for heating on Wednesday, according to preliminary results from financial data provider Refinitiv.
In Detroit, General Motors Co suspended operations at 11 Michigan plants and its Warren Tech Center after a utility made an emergency appeal to users to conserve natural gas after extreme cold and a fire at a compressor station. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV also canceled a shift on Thursday at two of its plants.
"Due to extremely high energy demand, I've turned my thermostat down to 64. I'm asking everyone who is able to please do the same," Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer wrote on Twitter.
More than 2,100 flights were canceled and more than 1,500 were delayed in the United States on Thursday afternoon, with nearly 1,700 of those cancellations occurring at Chicago's O'Hare International and Midway International airports, according to the flight tracking site FlightAware.com.