MADISON, Wis. – Millions of people across the Midwest had to contend Wednesday with a relentless, bone-deep freeze, with extreme temperatures that would have been sobering even without the appendage of a minus sign.
It was colder than Alaska’s North Slope in many places, including Norris Camp, Minnesota, where temperatures dropped to minus-48 degrees Wednesday morning, with wind chills of minus-65 – making the town the coldest reporting location in the nation.
The mercury is forecast to rise slightly before plummeting again early Thursday.
“Please avoid the outdoors,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel cautioned. “If you have to go out, dress in multiple layers. Cover your nose and mouth to protect your lungs from the cold.”
The cold has already turned deadly, with at least six deaths linked to the extreme weather across the region. A man found dead outside in a Detroit suburb likely froze to death, the Ecorse Police Department said Wednesday. Another man in Detroit is also suspected to have frozen to death, the Detroit Free Press reported.
Authorities said four other deaths in Milwaukee, Rochester, Minnesota; Peoria, Illinois;, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, may have been weather-related.
With few exceptions, officials across the Midwest encouraged people to stay indoors – and for many, there would be little choice but to do so.
From Minnesota to Michigan, the polar vortex brought with it a slew of school closures, mail service interruptions and airline flight cancellations. Scores of restaurants, grocery stores and coffee shops shuttered for the day. In Chicago, “Disney on Ice” and the musical “Hamilton” were among many to go dark Wednesday; in this weather, the show could not go on.
There was ample reason for caution, officials warned. Nearly 90 million people are likely to experience temperatures at or below zero in the Midwest and New England, according to the National Weather Service; 25 million of them will face temperatures below minus-20 – dips that when combined with wind can cause near-instant frostbite.
With a dangerous, 48-hour deep freeze descending on the Midwest, governors in Wisconsin and Michigan declared states of emergency and ordered all state government offices closed; some state agencies in Illinois were closed Wednesday as well.
Even the U.S. Postal Service issued a rare alert, saying it would suspend deliveries to dozens of ZIP codes on Wednesday out of concern for the safety of its typically hardy mail workers. (The unofficial USPS motto, after all, makes no mention of staying the course in a polar vortex.)
Transportation services across the Midwest slowed dramatically – in many cases coming to a complete halt.
Amtrak canceled all train service in and out of Chicago, and more than 1,000 flights in and out of Chicago-area airports alone were canceled. Several other airports – particularly in St. Louis and Minneapolis – were also hit hard by widespread flight cancellations, according to FlightAware.com.
The Chicago area’s Metra commuter rail suspended some train service after extreme temperatures caused wiring problems. Some Chicago Transit Authority buses were being turned into mobile warming shelters for the homeless, the Associated Press reported, while Lyft said it would offer free rides to warming centers in the city.
In Rochester, Minnesota, where temperatures dropped to minus-27 degrees Wednesday morning, all municipal transit services were suspended after buses began experiencing mechanical difficulties.
In addition to school closures throughout the Midwest, districts from Pittsburgh to Buffalo also closed because of extreme weather.
All across the Midwest this week, preparations were underway in neighborhoods, on farms and in homeless shelters for the historic polar vortex that is expected to keep the region in a deep freeze through Thursday.
Early Wednesday, power outages roiled swaths of Wisconsin and Iowa, affecting about 7,000 customers, according to outage maps of various utility companies. Workers scrambled to restore electricity in a race to keep homes and businesses warm in the dangerous cold. It appeared most outages were resolved quickly.
“We understand there are safety concerns not only for our customers but our crews,” Jahns said. said Amy Jahns, a spokeswoman for We Energies, which serves customers in parts of Wisconsin.
Wind chill estimates plummeted to minus-50 in the Dakotas and northern Minnesota on Wednesday morning, and that same, painfully frigid air was forecast to spread southeast into Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit. Winds will make it feel like temperatures of minus-30 to minus-40 as far south as Illinois and northern Indiana; it is forecast to feel as low as minus-65 across the northern Great Lakes region.
The Arctic cold is all but certain to break records. Chicago’s low temperature Thursday morning is forecast to be close to its lowest ever, the minus-27 recorded on Jan. 20, 1985. One forecast model – the European – predicts that Chicago will hit minus-29 this week.
The weather has been especially perilous for the region’s most vulnerable.
An hour before sunrise Wednesday in downtown Madison, dozens of bundled up men carrying their belongings in grocery bags and suitcases ventured into the frigid morning air, which was minus-24 degrees with a real feel of minus-48 degrees.
They had spent the cold night in two shelters that required them to leave by 5:30 a.m. Now they were traipsing through downtown, across slick sidewalks and past the Wisconsin state capitol building, on their way to the headquarters of Porchlight Men’s Shelter – where they would be served breakfast before relocating again to several day shelters throughout the city.
“They should take a bus and pull it right here,” said Randy George Friesen, 66, who carried two bags six blocks from the auxiliary shelter where he slept Tuesday night to Porchlight headquarters. The man’s glasses were frosted over, his snow white beard was frozen and he had used scarves to tie a blue blanket around his wide shoulders.
Friesen said he didn’t understand why there wasn’t a shuttle between the two warm buildings.
“That will never happen,” said Murrel Swift, 48, who also made the journey between shelters. Tiny white crystals had accumulated on his thick eyelashes.
Inside the shelter, night manager Maurice Robinson was rattled. One guest had just attacked another with a bike lock, prompting the police, fire department and EMS to descend upon Porchlight. On nights like Tuesday, when the temperature is life threatening, the city’s shelters do not turn away anyone – even if an individual has been previously banned for bad behavior or intoxication.
Porchlight headquarters was more crowded than usual Tuesday night, and Robinson had to place people on mats along a hallway wall. At least eight men streamed in hours after the scheduled check-in time – at 1:09 a.m., 2:22 a.m., 2:37 a.m. – something that had never happened in the time he has worked there.
“The cold brings a lot of people in,” Robinson said.
Some in the northern Midwest went about their days, shopping at local businesses, walking their dogs, biking through snow-covered streets and cross-country skiing. But even the hardiest of towns had to push people indoors: Fargo, North Dakota, canceled part of its annual Winter Frostival, as did organizers of a similar winter carnival in the Twin Cities. And classes at the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin were suspended.
“I call it ‘The Day After Tomorrow’-type cold,” said Katrina Portis, 38, as she trekked through a snow-topped sidewalk in North Minneapolis on Tuesday. “We are officially there.”
Even some Midwestern homes were not cold-proofed refuges for hardened residents.
Brian Wallheimer, a science writer for Purdue University, corralled his three young children at home in Rockford, Illinois, after schools closed their doors Wednesday amid a wind chill that reached minus-50 degrees. The freezing air infiltrated his-two story home northwest of Chicago, he said, and frost has accumulated on the window sills and door hinges.
“I’ve never seen that happen,” Wallheimer, 39, said, as his children – 9, 6 and 4 years old – hatched plans to build a blanket fort in the basement.
Even Hell, Michigan, froze over, with temperatures expected to plunge to minus-26 by Wednesday evening in the community west of Detroit.
The temperature at the Thief River Falls airport, in northern Minnesota, registered minus-25 at sunrise Tuesday, with northwesterly winds at 25 mph – a calculated wind chill of minus-58. Many schools in the region closed, fearful that the temperatures were too dangerous for children to be outside at bus stops.
“It’s kind of scary to be dealing with the weather,” said Jason Brumwell, a bus driver for the Red Lake Falls School District in northwestern Minnesota. “We don’t have our kids on the bus, we have 40 of other people’s kids on the bus.”