The “polar vortex” that has been freezing much of the nation swirled into the Triangle on Tuesday, setting a record low temperature for the day almost as soon as the clock ticked past midnight and then continuing down.
More than 3,000 Triangle homes were without electrical power early Tuesday morning. Schools delayed their opening bells. Some commuters discovered that their cars wouldn’t start because their batteries were too cold. Dozens of flights were canceled or delayed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport
The mercury sank to 9 degrees at RDU at 6 a.m. and stayed there until beginning to creep up after 8 a.m. and reaching 11 degrees by 9 a.m., heading for highs predicted to be in the low to mid 20s across the region.
"The good news for us is that it didn't stick around," said Don Swhwenneker, WTVD meteorologist. "We've got almost a 10-degree increase each day coming over the next five days, and by the weekend we'll be in the 60s."
The skies were clear Tuesday morning, but flights were delayed or canceled for travelers trying to get in and out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
The problems were all over the map, and all airlines were affected.
Delta Air Lines canceled flights into RDU from Philadelphia and Minneapolis, and outbound flights to those cities plus New York and Indianapolis. American Airlines canceled two inbound flights from Chicago, but its 10:15 flight to Chicago departed on time. United Airlines canceled its 10:14 to Chicago, and it canceled a morning flight to Houston.
Big delays were on the departure and arrival boards, too, early in the morning. Southwest was reporting delays of up to 90 minutes for inbound flights from Baltimore, Chicago and Tampa. US Airways had delays from Pittsburgh and Charlotte. Delta reported delays of one to five hours for flights inbound from Indianapolis, Detroit, Atlanta and Boston, and outbound to Boston and Atlanta. The delays began to dwindle by late morning.
“The cold weather here is not affecting our flights – it’s the ripple effect from stuff elsewhere,” RDU spokesman Andrew Sawyer said at 10:40 a.m. “Right now we’re seeing a lot of flights that are going out on time. It looks like it’s on the rebound.”
The cold, accompanied by winds gusting to 20 mph or more overnight, brought power outages right when they are most painful for residents.
Duke Energy Progress reported shortly after 7 a.m. that it had 1,600 customers without electricity in Wake and Johnston counties, and that was down to about 1,250 by 9:30 a.m.
About 400 customers were out in Chatham County.
Duke Energy had reported about 1,700 customers without power in Durham and Orange counties early, and that had been reduced to about 100 by 9:30 a.m.
In Raleigh, police were directing traffic away from the intersection of Sutton and Smallwood drives near Broughton High School after an apparent water-main break began to damage the roadway.
The last time the Triangle felt any air as cold as 9 degrees was Jan. 29, 2000 – a freezing that came with 20 inches of snow still on the ground, remnants of a blizzard. This time, the cold air alone is the shocker, with clear skies expected.
Still, local school officials were being wary. All Triangle systems – Wake, Durham, Johnston, Chatham, Orange and Chapel Hill-Carrboro – opened two hours late Tuesday. The move was taken as a precaution, allowing time for administrators to check and fix damage to buses and heating systems before kids climb aboard.
“These types of temperatures tend to take a toll on our buses,” said Renee McCoy, spokeswoman for Wake County schools. “There’s an opportunity for batteries to be dead. We also have water in our brake fluid lines.”
Schoolchildren standing on corners in sub-freezing weather also are a concern.
The vortex is actually a swirling dome of frigid air, parked over Canada and the Great Lakes, Hohmann said. But when upper winds are just right, the vortex sags to the south and pours arctic air all the way to Florida.
Homeless shelters in the Triangle are operating under white-flag conditions, meaning all can enter when temperatures fall below freezing.
“We’re going to be putting out some mats tonight,” said Leslie Millett, spokeswoman for the Raleigh Rescue Mission, on Monday.
Volunteers with Church in the Woods have been passing out sleeping bags and blankets to many homeless people who live in camps, said Alice McGee, pastor. Some will find temporary shelter with friends. Others will pool money and sleep 10 to a motel room. Some will simply stay put.
The Raleigh church, which serves a large homeless population, recently received a set of warm “mummy” sleeping bags, which cover the head, McGee said.
“I knew it was going to be a cold winter with God sending us these mummy bags,” she said. However, the church still needs donated gloves.
Milder recent winters
Before 2000, single-digit temperatures were more common here. All the other days in January have lower record lows than today’s 15-degree record – making it low-hanging fruit for a modern storm system.
The all-time low for the region is 9 degrees below zero, set in 1985. But recent, less-extreme years have made us wimps.
A 9-degree low may seem scarce in the Triangle, as rare as yeti. The good news is that this will be a quick-hit freeze.
Warmer temperatures are expected to return Wednesday and continue into the 60s by the weekend.
But it will be cold enough Tuesday that even fur-covered Arctic mammals are laying low. Even the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro, which just added a new polar bear exhibit, will be closed.