CHICAGO – A whirlpool of frigid, dense air known as a “polar vortex” descended Monday into much of the U.S., pummeling parts of the country with a dangerous cold that could break decades-old records with wind chill warnings stretching from Montana to Alabama.
For a big chunk of the Midwest, the subzero temperatures were moving in behind another winter wallop: more than a foot of snow and high winds that made traveling treacherous. Officials closed schools in cities including Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee and warned residents to stay indoors and avoid the frigid cold altogether.
The forecast is extreme: 32 below zero in Fargo, N.D.; minus 21 in Madison, Wis.; and 15 below zero in Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Chicago. Wind chills – what it feels like outside when high winds are factored into the temperature – could drop into the minus 50s and 60s.
“It’s just a dangerous cold,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Butch Dye in Missouri.
It hasn’t been this cold for almost two decades in many parts of the country. Frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly at 15 to 30 below zero.
Between a heater that barely works and the drafty windows that invite the cold air inside his home, Jeffery Davis decided he’d be better off sitting in a doughnut shop for three hours Monday until it was time to go to work in downtown Chicago.
So he threw on two pairs of pants, two t-shirts, “at least three jackets,” two hats, a pair of gloves, the “thickest socks you’d probably ever find” and boots, and trudged to the train stop in his South Side neighborhood that took him to within a few blocks of the library where he works.
“I never remember it ever being this cold,” said Davis, 51. “I’m flabbergasted.”
One after another, people came into the shop, some to buy coffee, others, like Davis, to just sit and wait.
Giovannni Lucero, a 29-year-old painter, said he was prepared for the storm. To keep his pipes from freezing, he’d left the faucet running and opened the kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to let the warm air in his house reach the pipes.
“We stocked up yesterday on groceries because you never know,” Lucero said.
And he was reminded on the way to work that he’d make the right decision to buy a four-wheel drive truck. “There were accidents everywhere because of the ice,” he said.
Roads were treacherous across the region. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard upgraded the city’s travel emergency level to “red,” making it illegal for anyone to drive except for emergencies or seeking shelter. The last time the city issued such a travel warning was during a blizzard in 1978.
National Weather Service meteorologist Philip Schumacher urged motorists in the Dakotas – where wind chills were as low as the minus 50s – to carry winter survival kits and a charged cellphone in case they become stranded.
Elnur Toktombetov, a Chicago taxi driver, woke up at 2:30 a.m. Monday anticipating a busy day. By 3:25 a.m. he was on the road, armed with hot tea and doughnuts. An hour into his shift, his Toyota’s windows were still coated with ice on the inside.
“People are really not comfortable with this weather,” Toktombetov said. “They’re really happy to catch the cab. And I notice they really tip well.”
For several Midwestern states, the bitter cold was adding to problems caused by a weekend snow storm. The National Weather Service said the snowfall at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport totaled more than 11 inches – the most since the Feb. 2, 2011, storm that shut down the city’s famed Lake Shore Drive.
Police in suburban Detroit said heavy snow was believed to have caused a roof to collapse at an empty building in Lake Orion on Sunday evening. No one was hurt. More than 16 inches of snow fell on nearby Flint, Mich.
Missouri transportation officials said it was too cold for rock salt to be effective, and several Illinois roadways were closed because of drifting snow.
More than 1,000 flights were canceled Sunday at airports throughout the Midwest including Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis.
Many cities came to a virtual standstill. In St. Louis, where more than 10 inches of snow fell, the Gateway Arch, St. Louis Art Museum and St. Louis Zoo were part of the seemingly endless list of things closed. Shopping malls and movie theaters closed, too. Even Hidden Valley Ski Resort, the region’s only ski area, shut down.
School was called off Monday for the entire state of Minnesota, as well as cities and districts in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Iowa, among others. Chicago Public School officials reversed an earlier decision to keep schools open, announcing late in the day Sunday that classes would be canceled Monday.
Government offices and courts in several states closed Monday. In Indiana, the General Assembly postponed the opening day of its 2014 session, and the state appellate courts, including the Indiana Supreme Court, said they would be closed.
More than 40,000 homes and businesses in Indiana, 16,000 in Illinois and 2,000 in Missouri were without power early Monday.
Ray Radlich was among the volunteers at New Life Evangelistic Center, a St. Louis homeless shelter, who braved the cold to search for the homeless and get them to shelters.
Among those Radlich and his team brought in Sunday was 55-year-old Garcia Salvaje, who has been without a home since a fire at his apartment last week. Salvaje, a veteran, had surgery three months ago for a spinal problem. The cold makes the pain from his still-healing back intense.
“I get all achy and pained all the way up my feet, to my legs, up my spine,” Salvaje said.
Southern states were bracing for possible record temperatures, too, with single-digit highs expected Tuesday in Georgia and Alabama.
Temperatures plunged into the 20s early Monday in north Georgia, the frigid start of dangerously cold temperatures for the first part of the week. The Georgia Department of Transportation said its crews were prepared to respond to reports of black ice in north Georgia.
Temperatures were expected to dip into the 30s in parts of Florida on Tuesday. Though Florida Citrus Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows said it must be at 28 degrees or lower four hours straight for fruit to freeze badly, fruits and vegetables were a concern in other parts of the South.
With two freezing nights ahead, Louisiana citrus farmers could lose any fruit they cannot pick in time.
In Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, Ben Becnel Jr. estimated that Ben & Ben Becnel Inc. had about 5,000 bushels of fruit on the trees, mostly navel oranges and the sweet, thin-skinned mandarin oranges called satsumas.
“We’re scrambling right now,” he said.