Arctic air has been blowing south for more than a week, and has been felt especially hard in the Northeast, where the last couple of winters were unusually mild.
"It's remarkable, the longevity of it," said Tim Morrin, a National Weather Service meteorologist at Upton, N.Y. "It just doesn't seem like we're getting a break."
As CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports, Zamoria Jones isn't one of the 17 deaths in the Chicago area blamed on cold weather this year. But she did die trying to keep warm when fire triggered by a space heater broke out in her Southside home.
Meanwhile, crews in the Boston suburb of Canton are grateful no one was hurt in their battle against fire and ice today. They answered the three-alarm call, only to find the water they so desperately needed was frozen solid.
"I think the winter fires are a lot worse than the summer fires, there's no doubt about it," one Massachusetts firefighter told WBZ-TV.
The temperature drop is the result of the jet stream dipping down, and bringing with it arctic air, all part of the atmosphere's constant attempt to equalize the global highs and lows.
What is unusual about this winter is how dry it has been. Along the Mississippi the coast guard is watching the river fall to levels that threaten to shut down barge traffic. And forest service officials in tinderbox states like Colorado are already worried that this cold dry winter will lead to a long hot fire season.
"We're just doing what we can, bracing for a possible worse fire season than 2002, which was the worst in Colorado recorded history," says fireman Bill Lucatuarto.
According to Bowers, snow is so scarce in Minnesota, the sculptures for this year's winter carnival in St. Paul are being carved out of machine made ice. But it's safe bet, they won't melt before they face judgment day.
Thermometers registered 35 below zero at 8 a.m. Wednesday at Embarrass, in the woods of northeastern Minnesota, and nearby Tower hit 31 below.
And the forecast is not encouraging.
"It will be another frigid day in then upper Midwest, with places in the Dakotas and Minneosta not getting above zero during the day and then dropping back to 20-25 below zero at night," said CBS News Meteorologist George Cullen.
Morning lows were 20 below zero at International Falls, Minn., Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and Watertown, N.Y., and Clayton Lake in far northern Maine chilled to minus 17.
The last time the mercury in New York City rose above freezing was Jan. 13 — nine icy days in a row as of Wednesday — and the deep freeze was expected to continue there into the weekend.
The chilly air extended as far south as North Texas, where Borger bottomed out at 20 degrees, and Kansas City, Mo., fell to just 16 by late morning, with a wind chill of 3.
The Mercy Shelter for the Homeless in Hartford, Conn., instituted a "no-freeze, no-turnaway" policy several weeks ago and has been filled beyond capacity, said executive director Sister Patricia McKeon.
"We have been letting people sit in the lounge, and sit in the dining room, in order to keep them inside. It's the best we can do," McKeon said.
However, the cold isn't setting any records in New England.
"This isn't even a Top 10 coldest January," said Gary Lessor, assistant director of the Western Connecticut State University Weather Service. "This isn't even in the league of old-fashioned cold. We've got to realize this is winter in New England."
Linda Baker, who runs a day-care center at her home in Hyde Park in northern Vermont, kept her six young charges inside Tuesday while the wind blew sheets of pebble-hard snow across the yard.
"They put wax paper on their feet and skate on the carpet," Baker said.
Refugees from the cold have been flocking to the Golden Image Sun Centers, a tanning salon in Watertown, N.Y., where the temperature hit 26 below zero just before dawn Tuesday, then struggled to 2 above during the afternoon.
"Everybody wants to come in and get warm from the inside out," said owner Andrea Morgia. "A few minutes in a booth and your bones are warm and you're good for the rest of the day."
Atop Cannon Mountain, a northern New Hampshire ski area, assistant ski patrol director Gareth Slattery tried to ignore Tuesday's 60 below zero wind chill, a product of 27 mph wind gusts and a temperature of 14 below.
"Wind chill is if you're standing out there naked, and I don't see anyone out there naked," Slattery said. "It's something weathermen use to scare the general public with."