A wave of Arctic winds that plunge temperatures lower than Antarctica gripped the American Midwest on Wednesday, grounding flights, closing schools and businesses and raising frostbite and 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 have 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.
“It feels like being close to dry ice, so I can feel my skin tighten up,” Leon Gilbert, 31, told AFP.
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.
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.
The US Postal Service — known for its commitment to bringing the mail whatever the weather — 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.
“There’s cold, and then there’s COLD!” the National Weather Service (NWS) said. “Extreme and dangerous COLD!”
The agency predicted temperatures to 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.
As temperatures near record lows in parts of the American Midwest, people gather outside a Neighbourhood Service Organisation in Detroit
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.
Authorities warned that the extreme temperatures were life-threatening, as 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 and nonessential employees would stay home.
“The National Weather Service continues to predict dangerously cold sub-zero temperatures and the priority must continue to be on keeping people safe,” Whitmer said in a statement.
Warming centres were opened for vulnerable residents such as the elderly and shelter capacities increased for the homeless, including the approximately 16,000 people estimated to live on the streets of Chicago.
In Chicago and Minneapolis, buses were used as roving warming shelters for the homeless.
Chicago’s regional electric train service was canceled due to wire problems caused by the freezing temperatures, as gas burners heated rail switches to keep trains moving on a reduced schedule.
Flight cancellations piled up throughout the United States, with more than 2,500 by mid-afternoon, stranding travellers such as Brandon Robinson who was spending 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 the roads.
Heavy snow was forecast in the northern stretches of Maine and snow squalls were predicted for other parts of the east coast of the country.