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In bitter cold, a bit of snow

If numbed fingers, dead car batteries and frozen pipes didn't convince you that Maryland's winter is finally getting serious, consider this: An Alberta clipper is likely to drop a coating of snow in time for rush hour tomorrow morning.

Depending on the storm's track, "I think that will actually produce ... on the order of a couple of inches in places," said Jeff Warner, a meteorologist with Penn State Weather Communications. "Two to 4 inches is not out of the question for a couple of spots."

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The storm sweeping out of Alberta, Canada, follows days of frigid temperatures and biting winds that made walking outdoors an ordeal for people such as Mildred L. Homa, who hurried to lunch near Baltimore's Inner Harbor yesterday, groaning and clamping her hands over her ears to keep out the icy breeze.

"It's like arctic cold out here," she hissed through clenched teeth.

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Thermometers struggled to reach 20 degrees yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, about the same as Anchorage, Alaska. Winds gusted to 32 mph, pushing the effective temperature on exposed skin to near zero.

The low in Baltimore was expected to reach single digits before daybreak today, the first time that has happened since January 2005. The record low for a Feb. 6 in Baltimore is 1 degree Fahrenheit, last reached in 1895.

Meteorologists blamed all this on a "direct discharge" of frigid air from the Arctic that plunged due south into the Midwest with sub-zero temperatures in many locations. The cold wind is also sweeping moisture off the Great Lakes, dumping several feet of lake-effect snow on parts of Pennsylvania and New York.

Bone-chilling cold sent temperatures as low as 42 below zero in northern Minnesota. Across the northern Plains and the Great Lakes states, it shut down schools for thousands of youngsters yesterday, sent homeless people into shelters and put car batteries on the disabled list.

"Anybody in their right mind wouldn't want to be out in weather like this," Lawrence Wiley, 57, said at the crowded Drop Inn Center homeless shelter where he has been living in Cincinnati. Lows in the area yesterday were in the single digits.

Those temperatures moderate a bit by the time the air reaches Baltimore, "but it's still obviously very cold air," said Warner.

Nobody needed to explain that to Jacinta A. Ocambo, who huddled over a heater in the glass-walled parking attendant's shack at the Inner Harbor's Pier 5 Hotel.

She wrapped a blanket over her lap and stuffed washcloths into cracks in the booth's walls to stop the cold wind from blowing in. "I used to live in Boston," she said, "and I feel like I'm back there."

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The 13-state power grid that serves Maryland set a winter demand record yesterday. During the morning, the PJM Interconnection was cranking out 112,500 megawatts, eclipsing the previous high of 110,414 megawatts, set Dec. 14, 2005. The region was not expected to reach its peak for the day until evening.

Not everyone was impressed with the cold. Louis D. Gibson, a city sanitation worker, said the trick to staying warm is to keep moving.

Though he added long underwear and a hooded sweat shirt under his green coveralls yesterday, he said he has seen colder days in his seven years with the Department of Public Works.

"This is nothing," he said. "Cold is when you have to put Vaseline on your face to keep the wind from cutting at your skin."

He and a co-worker alternated between emptying trash cans and riding on the back of their garbage truck along their route in West Baltimore. "We stay warm running behind the truck," he said.

The cold blast was a particular shock after a relatively mild early winter. The period from Thanksgiving through mid-January was the third-warmest on record for Baltimore, according to the National Weather Service. Only in 1931-1932 and 1889-1890 was the same time period warmer.

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Until mid-January, Warner said, the eastern two-thirds of the country was locked in a pattern of southwesterly winds, keeping Maryland consistently mild and virtually snowless.

Then, the pattern relented, he said, "and we started getting some surges of chill in from the northwest and west."

Now it's plenty cold enough to snow, and forecasters were watching a Canadian-born disturbance that was headed our way and could make tomorrow morning a tricky one for commuters. The clipper is a relatively weak storm without much moisture to drop as snow.

A big snow, if it comes, isn't likely to arrive until the jet stream shifts and nudges the mass of cold air a bit west of where it is now, Warner said.

That would send the jet stream, and the storm track, flowing along the east side of the cold air and up the Atlantic Coast. That's just the sort of conveyor belt needed to bring a wet Gulf Coast storm into collision with the cold air and trigger a major East Coast snowstorm.

"Looking at the long-range models - far, far out - some of them indicate the potential for some type of bigger wintry storm ... maybe 10 days from now," Warner said. "It wouldn't surprise me if that happens."

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By 4 p.m. yesterday, the AAA had received 1,650 calls from Maryland members whose cars wouldn't start. Morning calls ran 50 percent above normal for a winter day.

More than a third of the problems were dead batteries.

"If you're going to have a problem with a battery, this is when you're going to have it," said AAA auto repair specialist Ed Kriston. He said motorists should listen for slower cranking and sluggish starts, and replace the battery before it quits or when their mechanics say the battery is weakening.

Regular maintenance and oil changes will also catch developing problems and avoid cold-weather no-starts, he said.

The weekend cold aggravated problems with school furnaces across the region.

Custodians at Harford County's Edgewood High School discovered about 7 a.m. that both boilers in the building had gone out during the night. They were able to re-light the boilers so the building was beginning to warm up as students arrived.

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"By the time we found out, it was too late to call off school and reroute buses," said Don Morrison, school spokesman. Students attended morning classes in coats, hats and gloves.

Temperatures at Joppatowne High School were not so low, but the building did lose one boiler during the night. It, too, was restarted in the morning. At Hickory Elementary, a pipe burst in one classroom wing, but students were moved to another area while maintenance crews repaired the damage.

In Carroll County, a power outage yesterday morning darkened New Windsor Middle School, where the idled furnace and dropping temperatures prompted officials to send students home at 11:30 a.m.

"The building is cold and it's getting colder," Superintendent Charles I. Ecker reported.

Allegheny Power officials blamed the outage on a wire that broke shortly after 6 a.m.. About 900 customers east of Union Bridge and along Route 75 lost power for several hours.

In Anne Arundel County, West Meade Elementary also closed yesterday when the heating system failed.

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The cold air was expected to moderate later this week, with the mercury rising to the freezing mark by Thursday. (The average high for this time of year is 43 degrees.)

Meanwhile, the bitter cold continues to take a toll on the city's water lines. Baltimore public works crews were working on 20 to 30 water main breaks yesterday afternoon, the result of freeze-and-thaw cycles that shift the earth around them, according to DPW spokesman Kurt L. Kocher.

He urged patience as repair crews work to fix one break after another. "Just imagine being out there digging in the wet ground," he said. "It's an excruciatingly difficult job and these workers go out there and do it every day, and do it well. ... Don't be afraid to say hello and offer a cup of hot coffee."

The cold has also brought plumbers their first frozen-pipe calls of the winter.

"They're starting," said Michael Giangrandi, president of A.J. Michaels, a Baltimore plumbing, heating and air conditioning contractor who expects more calls in the coming days. "Usually it takes a couple of days for the pipes to get cold enough to freeze."

If the water remains frozen in the pipes, the leaks won't appear until it finally thaws.

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"The best thing is to leave the water running a little bit," just a trickle, he said. "As long as it's moving, it won't freeze inside the line."

Any water pipes exposed to outside walls can also be wrapped with rags or insulation or heat tape available at hardware stores, Giangrandi said.

"It's the common sense things people never do. That's why we're in business."

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Chris Emery, Arin Gencer, Ruma Kumar and Mary Gail Hare and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

TEMPERATURES YESTERDAY

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DOWNTOWN HIGH 22 -- LOW 13

AIRPORT HIGH 20 -- LOW 11


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