For once, America's polarizing extremities are not limited to its politics

Traffic is sparse on the snow-covered I-45 in The Woodlands, Texas.

This was excerpted from the February 17 edition of CNN's Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.

(CNN)It's cold out there.

A severe blast of Arctic winter is turning Texas a strange shade of white. It's freezing in Houston, Oklahoma City and Kansas City. The snow line has reached all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico in Galveston, and several Louisiana counties are under ice curfews. And a massive snow storm has blanketed Oregon and Washington. Across the country, millions of Americans are in the dark and cold after a rolling rampage of power cuts. Police report hundreds of road accidents — especially in southern states where drivers aren't used to ice and snow.
"In my 45 years of covering Texas weather, I don't remember ever seeing all 254 counties in the state under a Winter Storm Warning," David Finfrock, a senior meteorologist with a local NBC station tweeted. Record low temperatures were caused by a disruption in the polar vortex, a mass of cold air around the North Pole that has, in this cursed winter, swept much further south than usual.
As always when the mercury plunges, climate skeptics are filling social media with quips like "global cooling?" Of course, rising average global temperatures in recent years don't mean that winter is going to suddenly disappear. Weather explains atmospheric conditions in a snapshot of time, while climate is how the atmosphere behaves and changes over an extended period. Still, at least this year, chilling ignorance of the science is not being spouted by presidential tweet.
    The big chill will cost billions of dollars — not least to repair a power grid more often damaged in temperate regions by hurricanes. Public health experts worry that vaccine distribution is being disrupted or even halted altogether. As ice and snow move east, more records are tumbling. On Sunday, there was a 130 degree spread in temperatures across the US with Miami sweltering in 91 degrees Fahrenheit while parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota saw -40.
    For once, the polarizing extremities of what John Steinbeck called "this monster land" are not limited to its bitter politics.

    'It's the same plane we had as vice president, only much nicer'

    The 46th President likes an early bedtime and a roaring fire in the Oval Office, CNN's Kevin Liptak writes of Joe Biden's new White House routines. Biden has his coffee with the first lady, meetings and phone calls from the Oval Office starting just after 9 a.m. and a return to his residence by 7 p.m -- with significantly less of the opaque "executive time" that his predecessor reserved. He reminds reporters that it's not his first rodeo -- after taking a smaller version of Air Force One to his home state Delaware, the former vice president remarked casually, "It's the same plane we had as vice president, only it's much nicer in terms of what the inside is." But he'll have his first chance to ride the iconic Air Force One, a military version of a Boeing 747, on Tuesday, when he travels to Milwaukee for a CNN town hall.

    Postcard from New Orleans

    A New Orleans Mardi Gras float rolling down Napoleon Avenue in 2020.
    If this were a normal year, the crooked streets of the New Orleans' French Quarter would be crawling on Tuesday with feathered-covered, jewel-encrusted partygoers waving slushy drinks and powdered beignets. There would be music on every corner and too many parades to count. It's Mardi Gras after all, locally referred to as the "Greatest Free Show on Earth."
    The festival, renowned for its extravagant parade floats, usually requires an army of artisans, service industry workers, musicians, and culture bearers who plan and prepare all year long. Many are now struggling with the cancellation of the usual festivities. But like everywhere in the world, we are adjusting.
    The city's pandemic-appropriate alternative to Mardi Gras is "Yardi Gras" — bringing the same large-scale decorations to front yards. Instead of building parade floats that move through close crowds of people, the krewes that stage Mardi Gras parades are decorating homes and encouraging homeowners to hire traditional artists for the occasion.
    "Yardi Gras" decorations in New Orleans this year.
      Because of these projects, the city's historic Saint Charles Avenue is alive with gorillas, giraffes, dinosaurs, and jesters. Its mansions are bedecked with colored lights and painted flowers. Stacks of beads line fences; and balloons and crepe paper in purple, green, and yellow festoon the roofs. On weekends, New Orleanians can soak it all in from a safe social distance.
      But is it still Mardi Gras without drunken tourists in belly dancing outfits and cowboy hats, lines of local celebrants in glorious feather hats, or musicians on the street? While the big day may feel more subdued than normal, there is also a sense of community as locals find a new way to honor their city's unique arts and culture. It will take more than a pandemic to stop the city from passing a good time. -- Meanwhile's Shelby Rose writes from the Big Easy