ATLANTA — Fountains froze over, a 200-foot Ferris wheel in Atlanta shut down, and Southerners had to dig out winter coats, hats, and gloves they almost never have to use.
The brutal polar air that has made the Midwest shiver over the past few days spread to the East and the Deep South on Tuesday, shattering records that in some cases had stood for more than a century.
The mercury plunged into the single digits and teens from Boston and New York to Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville, and Little Rock — places where many people don’t know the first thing about extreme cold.
‘‘I didn’t think the South got this cold,’’ said Marty Williams, a homeless man, originally from Chicago, who took shelter at a church in Atlanta, where it hit a record low of 6 degrees. ‘‘That was the main reason for me to come down from up north, from the cold, to get away from all that stuff.’’
The morning weather map for the eastern half of the United States was packed with small, negative numbers.
The cold turned deadly for some: Authorities reported at least 21 cold-related deaths across the country since Sunday, including seven in Illinois, and six in Indiana. At least five people died after collapsing while shoveling snow, while several victims were identified as homeless people who either refused shelter or didn’t make it to a warm haven soon enough.
In Missouri on Monday, a 1-year-old boy was killed when the car he was riding in struck a snowplow, and a 20-year-old woman was killed in a separate crash after her car slid on ice and into the path of a tractor-trailer.
The big chill started in the Midwest over the weekend, caused by a kink in the ‘‘polar vortex,’’ the strong winds that circulate around the North Pole. By Tuesday, the icy air covered about half the country, and records were shattered like icicles up the Eastern Seaboard.
It was 1 degree in Reading, Pa., and New York City plummeted to 4 degrees; the old record for the date was 6, set in 1896. In Boston, the low was 10 degrees, with stiff winds.
‘‘It’s brutal out here,’’ said Spunkiy Jon, who took a break from her sanitation job in New York to smoke a cigarette in the cab of a garbage truck. ‘‘Your fingers freeze off after three minutes, your cheeks feel as if you’re going to get windburn, and you work as quick as you can.’’
Farther south, Birmingham, Ala., dipped to a low of 7, four degrees colder than the old mark, set in 1970. Huntsville, Ala., dropped to 5, Nashville got down to 2, and Little Rock fell to 9. Charlotte, N.C., reached 6 degrees, breaking the 12-degree record from 1884.
In New Orleans, which reported a low of 26 degrees, hardware stores ran out of pipe insulation. A pipe burst in an Atlanta suburb and a main road quickly froze over. In downtown Atlanta, a Ferris wheel near Centennial Olympic Park that gives riders a bird’s eye view of the city closed because it was too cold.
The deep freeze dragged on in the Midwest as well, with the thermometer reaching minus 12 overnight Monday in the Chicago area and 14 below in suburban St. Louis. More than 500 Amtrak passengers were stranded overnight Monday on three Chicago-bound trains stopped by blowing and drifting snow in Illinois. Food ran low, but the heat stayed on.
The worst should be over in the next day or two. Warmer weather — that is, near or above freezing — is in the forecast for much of the stricken part of the country.
On Tuesday, many schools across the eastern half of the United States were closed so youngsters would not be exposed to the dangerous cold. Officials opened shelters for the homeless and anyone else who needed a warm place.
With the bitter cold slowing baggage handling and aircraft refueling, airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights in the United States, bringing the four-day total to about 11,000.
PJM Interconnection, which operates the power grid that serves more than 61 million people in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and South, asked users to conserve electricity because of the cold.
Natural gas demand in the United States set a record Tuesday, eclipsing the mark set a day earlier, according to Jack Weixel, director of energy analysis at Bentek Energy.
In Chicago, it was too cold even for the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo. While polar bears can handle below-zero cold in the wild, Anana was kept inside Monday because she doesn’t have the layer of fat that bears develop from feeding on seals and whale carcasses.