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Snow expected to accumulate to 1 meter deep was falling in upstate New York near Watertown with the rest of the nation staying dry but shivering from an Arctic air blast, said meteorologist Dan Petersen of the National Weather Service.
The coldest place in the country on Thursday was Estcourt Station, the northernmost point in Maine, with temperatures of minus 39 Celsius, he said.
Records were broken from Montpelier, Vermont, at minus 29C, to Jackson, Kentucky, with minus 18C, he said.
"It's the face - it's like being hit with a sheet of ice," Bart Adlam, 40, president of U.S. yogurt supplier siggi's, said as he rode a bike through Times Square on his way to work at 8 a.m. in New York City. The wind chill there made minus 12C feel like minus 18C, according to Weather.com.
Cold bitter enough to freeze fuel lines on school buses forced schools to close from Portland, Maine, to Chicago. Train rails cracked by the cold caused delays for commuters in Washington, D.C. Weather also hung up US air travel with 279 delays and 675 cancellations, according to FlightAware.com.
Driving was treacherous in areas hit with blowing snow and icy roadways, including North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, the NWS said.
Frostbite could set in with just 15 minutes' exposure to the frigid air, the weather service said, advising people keep pets indoors.
In Boston, Massachusetts Governor-elect Charlie Baker planned to shorten the outdoor portion of his inauguration ceremony out of concern that it was too cold for spectators, a spokesman said.
"It's cold but I'm bundled up," said Willie Council, 65, a homeless man rocking to stay warm on K Street, Washington, D.C.'s corridor for lobbyists and lawyers. "I've got on three pairs of socks but I don't have any boots."
Even sledding hills around Chicago and ice-skating rinks in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were shut down because of risk of wind chill and Maine's Sugarloaf Mountain closed ski trails because of "Arctic conditions."
Temperatures also plummeted to an uncharacteristic 10 to 15 degrees overnight across the Gulf Coast, where a hard freeze warning was issued for east Texas across parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and southern Georgia, NWS said.
Persistent cold was expected to hang on into the weekend in the Northern Plains, with temperatures below zero, as well as the East Coast and the South, Petersen said. Some light snow may fall on Friday throughout New York and New England, he said.