CHICAGO — A deep, brutal cold set in across the Midwest on Wednesday, sending temperatures plummeting to depths that stunned even Midwesterners, a group accustomed to shrugging off winter. The cold that seized the middle of the country was the sort that makes cars moan, that makes breathing hurt, that makes any bit of exposed skin sting.
Cities like Chicago had been preparing for the deep freeze for days, so when it arrived, much of life had come to a standstill. Colleges and schools were closed all around, and even the United States Postal Service had stopped deliveries in some places. Workers were sent home, meetings canceled, parties called off.
And the worst of the blast was still to come: Weather forecasters said temperatures would drop again after sunset on Wednesday, and that Chicago might even break its record low of minus 27. The outlook for Thursday was different but still grim: slightly warmer temperatures — and snow.
Here are the latest developments:
• Temperatures plummeted and could break records. Minneapolis dipped as low as minus 28, with the wind chill reaching minus 53, the National Weather Service said. Chicago got to minus 23, with a windchill of minus 50. And Milwaukee hit minus 20, with a wind chill of minus 47.
• As many as five deaths have been reported to be connected to the Midwest’s dangerously cold weather system, according to The Associated Press, including a man hit by a snow plow in the Chicago region, a man believed to have frozen to death in a Milwaukee garage, and a couple killed in a vehicle accident on an Indiana road. Local outlets in Detroit reported that a 70-year-old man was found dead near his home in what the police described as “limited clothes.”
• Officials throughout the region have declared states of emergency, warned of frostbite and hypothermia, and urged residents to heed guidelines that ultimately boiled down to two words: Stay inside.
• More than 2,000 flights were canceled across the United States, according to FlightAware, most of which were heading into or out of the frozen Midwest.
• We asked people in Chicago who work in extreme cold for their practical tips for survival. Here’s what they said.
Stores are closed, and the streets are empty
All around Chicago, restaurants and shops seemed to have one thing in common: a hastily placed sign in the door announcing that they were closed for the day.
There would be no chance of a scoop of stracciatella at Frio Gelato on Clark Street (not that anyone would want it), or Wiener schnitzel at the Berghoff Cafe downtown.
[You could get frostbite in a matter of minutes. Here’s what to do.]
Commerce slowed throughout the Midwest but the frigid conditions were unlikely to exact a lingering economic toll. In a 2015 report, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago concluded that winter weather had “a significant, but short-lived effect on economic activity.”
But economists, the report suggested, have long struggled to pinpoint the financial consequences of events like this week’s polar vortex, especially because regional and national economies are shaped by so many factors.
Still, plenty of businesses were not running as usual on Wednesday, suggesting that locally felt consequences might not surface in long-range data. Even “Disney on Ice,” which was scheduled to run on Wednesday night at Chicago’s United Center, was canceled.
[Read more here about how the deep freeze is hitting the homeless.]
Through it all, some restaurants pressed on.
At Huck Finn, a diner on the Southwest Side, there were fewer patrons than usual, said Demetri Hiotis, the general manager. But the people who did come in were cheerful, almost exuberant.
“It’s like they’re living through some kind of weather history — everyone else stayed in, and we’re here doing our thing,” Mr. Hiotis said. “There’s a sense of pride. It’s 22 below but I still went to work, got my breakfast, got my coffee and doughnut.”
Sea smoke rises from a frigid Lake Michigan
The temperature at Montrose Harbor on Chicago’s North Side on Wednesday was 21 degrees below zero, with a fierce wind gusting from the west. That didn’t deter Iggy Ignoffo, who stood at the edge of Lake Michigan, wearing sunglasses and a warm cap, hands stuffed in his pockets.
“I could see Venus, Jupiter and the moon a little while ago,” he said, pointing to the sky. “Beautiful.” Sea smoke rose from the lake, the result of extremely cold air blowing over warmer water. The downtown skyline was visible in the distance, several miles away.
The harbor was hardly deserted: a stream of curious people ducked in and out of their cars, snapping pictures, taking a brief frolic in the snow.
Mr. Ignoffo and his wife come down to the harbor all the time, he said, one of the most photogenic spots in the city. This time, she stayed in the car.
“Now I’m going to take a swim,” Mr. Ignoffo said, beginning the walk back to his car. “Indoors.”
Schools and colleges close, but this was no ordinary snow day
Schools across a broad section of the nation canceled classes as the dangerous freeze descended, and some said they were pondering canceling classes again on Thursday. Many Midwestern institutions lean toward staying open through snowstorms and cold spells, but this one was different. For a second consecutive day, students on Wednesday were told to stay home at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where there was a forecast high of minus 3, relatively warm compared with other parts of the Midwest.
The roughly 44,000 students at the University of Wisconsin had Wednesday off, as temperatures at the Madison campus were expected to dip to minus 30 by evening. University officials had come under criticism for keeping the campus open on Monday and Tuesday in subzero weather.
Hundreds of thousands of younger students in schools across the country’s midsection also had no classes on Wednesday. Administrators in school districts in and around Cincinnati, worried about students walking to school in the cold or the possibility of a bus breaking down in the cold, called off class.
Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky apparently disagreed with the decision by many schools and colleges in that state to shut down on Wednesday. “We’re getting soft,” Mr. Bevin, a Republican, said during a radio interview on Tuesday. The forecast high in Louisville on Wednesday was 9 degrees, with a wind chill as low as minus 15.
A day home from school had some students rejoicing, but many may have to make it up later. A banner across the website of the Park Hill School District in suburban Kansas City, Mo., told students to stay home but offered an added note: The school year will be extended by a day.
Planes are fine, but there were still plenty of cancellations
Despite the extreme cold, aircraft icing was not a major concern on Wednesday, because there wasn’t enough precipitation for ice to build up. And planes have no trouble flying in such extreme temperatures (it can be as cold as minus 70 degrees at flight level), but ground equipment is more susceptible to the cold — not to mention the ground crew.
United Airlines canceled about 500 flights into and out of Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Wednesday through Thursday morning, with most of the affected flights involving other Midwestern airports. American Airlines canceled about 400, including 170 at its Chicago hub.
A Closer Look at the Polar Vortex’s Dangerously Cold Winds
Chicago will be as cold as the Arctic on Wednesday. We’ll show you why.
Delta Air Lines, which has hubs in Minneapolis and Detroit, had canceled around 40 flights. Some of those cancellations were caused by refueling lines freezing up, said Michael Thomas, a spokesman for Delta.
The airlines were also taking measures to keep their ground crews safe. United set up temporary heating shelters at a number of airports around the region and brought in extra ramp workers to rotate shifts so employees could minimize their time outside. Delta also said it brought in more workers, was providing hand warmers and was scheduling extra hydration breaks to keep workers out of the elements as much as possible.
Many trains and buses keep running, though schedules have slowed.
The Chicago Transit Authority said its “L” trains were operating, but that some lines — including those connecting Midway and O’Hare airports with downtown — were running on modified schedules or with delays. Some bus lines were rerouted.
But Metra, a commuter railroad in the Chicago region that had already announced modified schedules, said it had suspended electric train service indefinitely because of wire problems “caused by harsh subfreezing temperatures.”
Beyond Chicago, transit agencies in Detroit, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were trying to operate normally on Wednesday but some warned customers of the potential for delays.
“Riders should dress appropriately (multiple layers), stay indoors for as long as possible and be aware that they may have to wait longer than usual,” the Milwaukee County Transit System said.
Amtrak, which ordinarily runs 55 trains to or from Chicago each day, said it had canceled all of its Wednesday services involving the city and that most Thursday trains would also be scratched. Given Chicago’s prominence in the Amtrak network, the decision was expected to be felt across the country.
If it’s so cold out, what about global warming?
The extremely low temperatures this week in parts of the United States, stand in sharp contrast to the trend toward warmer winters. But they may also be a result of warming.
Emerging research suggests that a warming Arctic is causing changes in the jet stream and pushing polar air down to latitudes that are unaccustomed to them and often unprepared. Hence this week’s atypical chill over large swaths of the Northeast and Midwest.
Friederike Otto, an Oxford University climate scientist who studies how specific weather events are exacerbated by global warming, said that while not all of these extreme events can be attributed to climate change, the profound changes in the earth’s atmosphere raise “the likelihood of a large number of extreme events.”
[Read more here about the climate change connection.]
Matthew Haag, Somini Sengupta and Zach Wichter contributed reporting from New York, and Alan Blinder from Atlanta.
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