PORTLAND, Maine — Plunging temperatures across half the country on Thursday underscored a stark reality for low-income Americans who rely on heating aid: Their dollars aren't going to go as far this winter because of rising energy costs.
Forecasters warned people to be wary of hypothermia and frostbite from an arctic blast that's gripping a large swath from the Midwest to the Northeast, where the temperature, without the wind chill factored in, dipped to minus 32 (minus 35 Celsius) on Thursday morning in Watertown, New York.
Even before the cold snap, the Department of Energy projected that heating costs were going to track upward this winter, and many people are keeping a wary eye on their fuel tanks to ensure they don't run out.
The burden caused by higher prices and higher energy usage is felt by all Americans, especially those who struggle to stay warm.
Elizabeth Parker, 88, of Sanford, Maine, said she lives in fear of running out of heating fuel and remains vigilant in monitoring the gauge outside her trailer. She said she is allowed to request a fuel delivery thanks to federal aid, but only when her gauge dips to one-eighth of a tank.
"I couldn't get along without it," said Parker, who lives with her 93-year-old husband, Robert Parker, along with a cat, a dog and four birds.
Prolonged, dangerous cold weather this week has sent advocates for the homeless scrambling to get people off the streets and to bring in extra beds for them. Warming centers also were set up in some locations. Frozen pipes and dead car batteries added to the misery across the region.
In western New York and Erie, Pennsylvania, residents were still cleaning up from massive snowfall. Firefighters had to use a bucket loader to rescue someone trapped in her home in Lorraine, New York.
In Ohio, a dog was found frozen solid on the porch of a house in Toledo, and a third body was recovered near a car that slid off an icy road and flipped into a canal days earlier in the city of Oregon.
Despite the cold, there was some good news for recipients of federal aid from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. President Donald Trump released nearly $3 billion, or roughly 90 percent, of the funding in October after previously trying to eliminate the program.
But projected energy cost increases will effectively reduce the purchasing power by $330 million, making it imperative that the remaining funds be released, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.
This winter, energy costs were projected to grow by 12 percent for natural gas, 17 percent for home heating oil, 18 percent for propane and 8 percent for electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Energy prices may even be higher than those projections. According to Wolfe, colder weather could lead to even higher levels of consumption, and resulting prices could push the cost of winter heating up to $1,800 this winter for those using heating oil, 45 percent more than last year's level.
On Thursday, cold weather records were set from Arkansas to Maine, and the cold air will linger through the weekend, reaching as far south as Texas and the Florida Panhandle through the weekend.
In New Hampshire, the cold set a record for the day of minus 34 (minus 37 Celsius) atop the Northeast's highest peak, Mount Washington, where a video was posted showing a weather observer emptying a pitcher of boiling water into the air, where it immediately turns to snow.
In the Midwest, temperatures in Minneapolis aren't expected to top zero (minus 18 Celsius) this weekend, and it likely will be in the teens (minus 11 Celsius to minus 7 Celsius) when the ball drops on New Year's Eve in New York City.
It was so cold officials in New Jersey canceled a New Year's Day polar bear plunge, in which swimmers dash into the Atlantic Ocean.
A winter storm warning was in effect for much of Montana, calling for significant snowfall followed by dangerously cold temperatures as 2017 comes to an end.