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Christmas Eve 1990: Record Cold Front Hits Record Winter Heat Wave

December 24, 1990

Undated (AP) _ Christmas Eve 1990 arrived with a combination of record cold in the western two-thirds of the nation and lingering spring-like warmth along the East Coast, with violent downpours of snow, sleet and rain between the two air masses.

Nearly a foot of rain in parts of Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee caused flooding that forced the evacuation of hundreds from low-lying areas.

A different problem with water is spreading through the area of cold - burst, frozen water pipes. Scores of people in Utah lost water service and numerous fire alarms were activated when water lines to indoor sprinkler systems snapped when the state tied or broke 54 low temperature records Sunday.

The Northeast cooled rapidly as the cold front marking the leading edge of the arctic air pushed through Sunday and today.

Typifying the contrast was Pennsylvania, which had freezing rain and high winds in the west Sunday and record highs in the east. Philadelphia peaked at 66, while 300 miles away a Christmas tree in downtown Pittsburgh, where highs reached the mid 30s, was blown down by 55 mph wind.

Thirty-six eastern cities posted record high temperatures for the date Sunday, including a 71 as far north as Washington, D.C., which matched a mark set in 1875. Wilmington, N.C., hit 78 and record highs in the 60s reached as far north as southern parts of New Hampshire and Maine.

New York tied its record at 66 Sunday but by midmorning today the temperature was falling through the 40s. Indiana was thoroughly engulfed by the cold today with lows down to 5 below zero and wind chills to 40 below.

On the northern Plains and in the mountains of the West, subzero cold was commonplace. Even typically balmy Arizona was no oasis from the chill, with freezing lows statewide Sunday.

″I don’t know what to say. ... My mouth’s frozen,″ said William Alder, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Utah, where a minus 57 reading was recorded in Middle Sink, in high mountains near Logan.

Even Southern California stayed cold today with lows of 28 in the Los Angeles enclave of Burbank, 25 up the coast at Santa Barbara, and 6 in Lancaster, north of Los Angeles over the San Gabriel Mountains.

In Montana, rancher Jim Brenden has been putting in 20-hour days to care for livestock weathering wind-chill factors as low as 40 below. Chores include chipping ice from water troughs and animals’ hooves.

″Cows are like wood stoves,″ Brenden said while untying roles of hay. ″The colder it gets, the more you have to feed them.″

At least 73 deaths have been blamed on weather since the cold wave hit Tuesday. Most were traffic fatalities but some victims died of hypothermia or from fires blamed on overworked heaters or fireplaces.

Hardest hit was Texas with 20 reported deaths, 17 in traffic crashes. Many ice-glazed bridges and roadways there had buildups as thick as 1 inch today.

About 12,500 Tupelo, Miss.-area residents were left in the cold after a natural gas pipe under the Tombigbee River broke Sunday. Divers repaired the break blamed on the cold and flooding, but service wasn’t expected to be restored before Christmas.

Hundreds of people evacuated low-lying areas along the Tennessee River, after nearly a foot of rain.

″We can’t turn the faucet off,″ said Fred Keeney, a planner in Morgan County, Ala. ″We don’t really know how many evacuations. We’ve got a lot of people who have been moved.″

The rain was diminishing somewhat, but water was expected to keep rising today, said Jerral Miller, a NWS meteorologist in Huntsville, Ala.

″It very definitely spoiled Christmas for a lot of people,″ Miller said.

Despite the cold, skiers in the West reveled on the slopes.

″It was great. I’ve never seen so much snow in my life,″ Alex Gonzales, 52, said after a day of skiing at New Mexico’s Sandia Peak, outside Albuquerque, which got 52 inches of snow from the storm.

Farmers fought a losing battle to save citrus and winter vegetable crops.

In California, the San Joaquin Valley citrus crop was virtually wiped out by the cold, weather service meteorologist Dan Gudgel said after a survey of growers.

″It’s the most extensive damage I’ve seen, ever,″ said Clark Briggs, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, which represents about 45,000 farmers.

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