(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Marisol Bello, USA TODAY
Teeth-chattering cold and biting winds are keeping children across the South and East Coast home from school, zoo animals penned indoors and even soldiers from reporting to duty.
Parts of all 50 states -- even Hawaii -- had below-freezing temperatures this morning, while those across much of the North are experiencing below-zero wind chills.
High temperatures Friday will be 15 to 25 degrees below average across the
Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and South, according to the National Weather Service.
That's meant a weather day for hundreds of thousands of children across the USA in some of the largest nation's school districts. Schools closed or had delayed openings in Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana and Virginia.
The bitterly cold air made its way as far south as the Gulf Coast states Friday, where snow accumulations and freezing rain are affecting portions of Texas and Louisiana, the weather service reports.
The weather service issued a winter storm warning for the Houston, San Antonio and Austin areas until midday Friday.
In Texas, more than a quarter of a million students were off Friday after a cold front brought snow and ice in the center and southeast part of the state. The Houston Independent School district, one of the 10 largest in the country with more than 200,000 students, closed Friday after snow hit the area.
The University of Texas at Austin, with more than 50,000 students, canceled classes Friday due to icy streets. Texas State University in San Marcos, about 30 miles south of Austin, also called off school, as did the Austin Independent School District.
Across the South, residents struggled to drive in the snow and ice, find gloves and hats to stay warm and clear off car windshields with their bare hands.
The ice and snow made travel treacherous. Accidents were reported throughout the south. In Louisiana, at least one person was killed in the Lake Charles area, while another accident blocked all northbound lanes for hours.
In Texas, Austin-Travis County EMS officials say they have responded to more than 100 wrecks that involved several multiple-car pileups, including one that involved 20 cars. Nearby Williamson County said its emergency crews responded to almost 40 car wrecks.
Department of Transportation officials said they are preparing sand and other de-icing materials and equipment, with staff on standby to treat roadways if needed.
"Hazardous weather can cause problems for drivers, so if you don't have to drive in it - don't," said Greg Malatek, TxDOT Austin District Engineer. "If you do decide to drive, be sure to reduce your speed in icy conditions and take extra precautions when approaching bridges, shaded spots, overpasses and turns, as these areas tend to ice over first."
Even the military base in Fort Hood, Texas, shut down. Only mission-essential staff are reporting for duty.
Conditions in Texas and other spots in the South were forecast to improve by Saturday. Austin and San Antonio could see a return to temperatures in the 70s by Sunday, forecasters said.
In other places, such as Fairfax County, Va., schools opened late. The district, one of the nation's largest with more than 177,000 students, sent parents an e-mail saying that the cold weather was causing significant mechanical problems with buses. Parents were urged to not let their children stand outside for a long time, waiting for late buses.
Zoo animals were also not immune to the cold. The North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro closed for the third time this week because of extreme cold and a wind chill that brought the temperature down to the single digits.
The 500 or so animals that are part of the zoo's African exhibit are particularly susceptible to the cold, says zoo spokesman Rod Hackney. The elephants, rhinos, giraffes and other animals that make up the exhibit are kept in heated barns. In some barns, heated pipes run under the floors.
"The heating bills are going to go up," Hackney said with a chuckle. "It's very unusual for us to have temperatures in the single digits."