MINNEAPOLIS -- The subzero cold pushing down into much of the U.S. is unlike cold weather felt in decades.
The record-breaking cold is caused in part because of a "polar vortex," which one meteorologist says will send piles of polar air into the U.S. These temperatures can be dangerous, and officials in several states are warning residents to stay indoors and take precautions. Here's a look at some of the problems that arise when temperatures plummet and how to stay safe if you venture outdoors.
At temperatures of 15 to 30 below, exposed skin can get frostbitten in minutes and hypothermia can quickly set in.
"People need to protect themselves against the intense cold," said Dr. Brian Mahoney, medical director of emergency services at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. "They have to wear a hat, they have to have face protection."
Mahoney said mittens are better than gloves, layers of dry clothing are best, and anyone who gets wet needs to get inside.
"You can't be wearing high-heel shoes with your toes in nylons," he added. "That's a great way to get frostbite."
Hypothermia, when a person's total body temperature gets too low, could lead to unconsciousness or cardiac arrest. Frostbite, when extremities freeze, could lead to amputations.
Homeless people who have no relief from the bitter chill are at risk, but Mahoney said he's also treated people who simply used bad judgment, sometimes due to drinking alcohol.
The bottom line, Mahoney said, is to avoid the cold if you can - or make sure all body parts are covered up and covered up well.
"You could die if you don't respect the environment you live in," he said.
Keeping vehicles in a garage is the most surefire way to ensure they will start in subzero conditions.
But for those who don't have access to a garage, it's important that they check the health of their vehicle's battery before the cold arrives, said Jason Jones, who works for Best Batteries in North Kansas City, Mo. - where temperatures early Monday were forecast to reach 10 degrees below zero.
Most batteries less than three years old should be able to handle the cold, he said. Older batteries and ones that are on the verge of going dead often cannot even be jump-started once they have been exposed for an extended time to temperatures below zero.
"Some batteries you can't get back to life," Jones said. "Once they get to a certain point, they're done."
CATTLE AND CITRUS
When temperatures plummet and the wind howls, ranchers have to protect themselves and their cattle in South Dakota.
Bob Fortune, of Belvidere, S.D., spent part of the weekend hauling hay and other feed to his cattle to prepare them for a wind chill expected to reach 50 or 60 degrees below zero. The cattle should be fine as long as they have feed and a place to get out of the wind, he said.
But with two freezing nights ahead in Louisiana, citrus farmers could lose any fruit they cannot pick in time. In Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, Ben Becnel Jr. estimated that Ben & Ben Becnel Inc. had about 5,000 bushels of fruit on the trees, mostly navel oranges and the sweet, thin-skinned mandarin oranges called satsumas.
Becnel said he and his 10 workers should be able to get 1,000 bushels into boxes over the next two days.
"If it doesn't get below 25 for too long, some of the varieties will be OK," he said. "Lemons freeze quick. The more sugar in the fruit, the longer it takes to freeze."
Brandie Nixon awoke the Saturday before Christmas to the screams of her 6-year-old son, Kurtus, and then saw smoke and fire in the bedroom of the family's small home in St. Clair, Mo.
A portable heater had somehow ignited a toy box, the fire eventually spreading to the bed where Kurtus was sleeping. Fortunately, he awoke in time to scamper to safety.
"The house didn't have heat," Nixon, a 25-year-old Wal-Mart employee, said, explaining the use of the portable heater. "I would not use heaters again. It's too risky."
The U.S. Fire Administration says more than 50,000 residential fires annually are caused by heating, resulting in about 150 deaths. January is the peak month.
"I think it's principally a desperation thing," said William Siedhoff, director of Human Services for the city of St. Louis. "When you're freezing cold, sometimes logic goes out the window and you seek out whatever means you can to stay warm."
Stephen Regenold is a self-described fitness freak who has, he says, enjoyed winter his whole life. Now 36, Regenold runs five miles daily around Minneapolis' Lake Calhoun, and bikes to work every day no matter the weather.
"I go crazy if I don't get those endorphins and get those fitness fixes every day," Regenold said.
Regenold's other love is equipment, which he writes about as the "Gear Junkie." Looking for pro tips for outdoor athletic survival? He's got them.
Keeping the core warm is easy, he says; focus instead on extremities. He wears mittens, and on the coldest days swears by a versatile hat that can be
worn to cover neck, head or both (He often wears two, plus a regular winter hat).
"To me it's less about being tough, but more about embracing where I live and not letting the weather man and the media scare me from what I love to do," Regenold said.
Associated Press writers Bill Draper in Kansas City, Mo., and Jim Salter in St. Louis contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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