By Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK, Jan 7 (Reuters) - A deadly blast of arctic air that shattered decades-old records as it gripped the middle United States moved eastward on Tuesday, canceling thousands of flights, paralyzing road travel and closing schools and businesses.
New York's Central Park hit a record low temperature for the day of 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 16 Celsius) but with winds gusting to 32 miles per hour (51 kph) conditions felt far colder, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.
"The winds will diminish in the afternoon, so that will make the wind chill temperature have a little less of a bite to it," said Joe Polina, a meteorologist with the service.
Shelters for the homeless were overflowing due to the severe cold brought by a polar air mass that produced the coldest temperatures in two decades and at least four deaths.
At New York's Bowery Mission homeless shelter, the 80 bed dormitory was at full capacity on Monday night and another 179 people slept in the chapel and cafeteria, officials said.
"We had our staff go out to walk the neighborhood to make sure everyone was aware they could come in for the night," said James Winan, a chief development officer. "We just want to make sure everyone is safe, warm, well-fed and sheltered."
Temperatures were expected to be 25 to 35 degrees F (14-19 Celsius) below normal from the Midwest to the Southeast, the National Weather Service warned.
After running into unpassable snow and ice, three Chicago-bound Amtrak trains came to a halt Monday afternoon, stranding more than 500 passengers overnight. They had heat, water, lights and toilet facilities, according to Amtrak.
As of Tuesday morning, passengers on two trains, which spent the night on the tracks in Bureau County, Illinois were being transported to Chicago by chartered bus, an Amtrak spokesman said.
In the normally mild south, Atlanta recorded its coldest weather on this date in 44 years, when the temperature dropped to 6 F (minus 14 C), while temperatures in northern Florida also briefly dropped below freezing, though the state's citrus crop was unharmed, according to a major growers' group.
Wholesale electricity prices in the central and eastern United States spiked far above their normal seasonal level as homes and businesses needed to use more energy to warm buildings amid dangerously cold conditions. Power demand in Texas hit a new winter record.
The deep freeze snarled many Americans' morning commutes with icy or closed roads and flight delays on Tuesday, with some 1,987 U.S. flights canceled and roughly 1,028 delayed, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks airline activity.
Hardest hit were travelers who had booked trips on JetBlue Airways Corp, which halted its flights at New York's three major airports and Boston Logan International Airport overnight to allow its crews to rest after five days of scrambling to recover from snow- and cold-related delays.
Major U.S. cities from the Midwest to the East Coast were in the grip of temperatures well below freezing, with Chicago seeing temperatures of minus 9 F (minus 23 C), Detroit minus 11 F (minus 24 C), New York 7 F (minus 14 C), Washington 9 F (minus 13 C) and Boston 12 F (minus 11 C).
Minneapolis public schools were to be closed for a second day on Tuesday "due to extremely cold temperatures," after Governor Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency on Monday.
The frigid air pushing eastward on Tuesday was forecast to dump one to two feet (30 to 60 cm) of snow east of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Many weather-related deaths were reported, including a 48-year-old Chicago man who had a heart attack while shoveling snow on Sunday and an elderly woman who was found outside her Indianapolis home early Monday.