A man takes a photo of Lake Michigan and the skyline as temperatures dropped to -20 degrees F (-29C) in Chicago (JOSHUA LOTT)
Chicago (AFP) – A brutal cold wave brought temperatures lower than Antarctica to the American Midwest on Wednesday, grounding flights, closing schools and businesses and raising hypothermia fears for homeless residents.
Mail deliveries were suspended and people encouraged to stay home in nearly a dozen US states where the mercury plunged into the negative double digits, the worst freeze to grip the region in a generation.
US media attributed at least five deaths since the weekend to the freezing conditions and a major snowstorm that preceded the blast of Arctic air currently gripping the region.
In Chicago, blocks of ice floated on the downtown river of America’s third-largest city and flames from gas burners heated regional commuter rail lines to keep them functioning.
The morning temperature in the Windy City was -22 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 Celsius), which felt like -50 degrees (-46 Celsius) with wind chill. It was colder than Alaska’s state capital and even colder than parts of Antarctica.
Forecasts predicted even colder conditions on Thursday.
“It feels like being close to dry ice,” Leon Gilbert, 31, told AFP. “I can feel my skin tighten up.”
Unlike most Chicago residents, Gilbert was required to report to his job at a Starbucks located on a downtown street largely devoid of its usual bustle of people and traffic.
Sandwich shop manager Daniel Gonzalez, 37, also was required to report to work — at 5:00 a.m.
“The wind, it just cuts through all your layers,” Gonzalez told AFP.
“I have two shirts on… I have a hoodie, I have my big winter coat, I have a face mask and a skullcap and still cold.”
More than 1,800 flights were canceled at Chicago’s two major airports, while rail operator Amtrak scrapped train services from its hub in the city.
– Homeless at risk –
The US Postal Service suspended deliveries in parts of Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, the Dakotas and Nebraska.
The cause of the sub-zero chill affecting tens of millions of Americans was a swirl of Arctic air that broke away from the polar vortex that usually encircles the North Pole.
The National Weather Service said temperatures would remain 25 to 45 degrees below average through Thursday, with wind chill values as low as -25 to -55 degrees Fahrenheit (-32 to -48 Celsius).
“The dangerously cold wind chills could cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as five minutes,” NWS said.
Residents of Grand Forks, North Dakota, faced a bone-chilling -35 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chill temperatures as low as -63, and it was -27 degrees in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin implemented emergency measures.
“The bitter cold temperatures pose a real risk to people across the state,” Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said on Twitter after touring state emergency operations.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said government offices would remain closed through Thursday. Nonessential employees would stay home.
“The priority must continue to be on keeping people safe,” Whitmer said in a statement.
Authorities and health experts warned of frostbite and hypothermia within minutes of exposure to the frosty air.
Warming centers were opened for vulnerable residents such as seniors, buses employed as mobile warming spaces, and shelter capacities increased for the homeless, including the approximately 16,000 living on the streets of Chicago.
– Transportation problems grow –
Burke Patten, spokesman for Chicago homeless shelter provider The Night Ministry, said some of the homeless were reluctant to go to shelters.
“The concern would be whether they are going to be able to survive in these bitter cold temperatures,” Patten told AFP.
Chicago’s regional electric train service was canceled due to cold-related wiring problems, as gas burners heated rail switches on conventional lines to keep trains moving on a reduced schedule.
Flight cancelations piled up throughout the country — more than 2,600 by late afternoon, stranding travelers such as Brandon Robinson who spent extra days in a downtown Chicago hotel.
“I’m here until they let me leave,” Robinson told AFP. “All my flights have been cancelled.”
Remnants of a weekend snowstorm continued to plague portions of the northeast US — with strong winds and blowing snow reducing visibility on roads.
Heavy snow was forecast in the northern stretches of Maine and snow squalls predicted for other parts of the east coast.
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