By Suzannah Gonzales
CHICAGO (Reuters) – A blast of polar air brought record-low temperatures to much of the U.S. Midwest on Wednesday, cancelling trash pick-ups, halting the mail and forcing residents who pride themselves on their winter hardiness to huddle indoors.
Classes were cancelled for Wednesday and Thursday in many cities, including Chicago, home of the nation’s third-largest school system, and police warned of the risk of accidents on icy highways. Michigan said all state offices would remain closed through Thursday.
In a rare move, the U.S. Postal Service appeared to temporarily set aside its credo that “neither snow nor rain … nor gloom of night” would stop its work: it halted deliveries from parts of the Dakotas through Ohio.
Streets in Chicago were nearly empty, with few people walking outside in the painfully cold air as temperatures hovered around minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 28 Celsius).
“It’s terrible!” Pasquale Cappellano, a 68-year-old waiter, said as he smoked a cigarette while waiting outside for a bus on Chicago’s North Side. “I gotta pick up my medication at Walgreens or else I wouldn’t be out the door.”
In Minneapolis, chilled to minus 14F (minus 26C), Brian Pierce had ventured out to “embrace the elements” and found himself watching cars slipping on the roads.
“The roads sound really weird, it seems there’s a lack of grip,” he said. “And my teeth hurt.”
Temperatures in parts of the Northern Plains and Great Lakes plunged to as low as minus 42 (minus 41 Celsius) in Park Rapids, Minnesota, and minus 31 (minus 35C) in Fargo, North Dakota, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). The frigid winds were headed for the U.S. East Coast later on Wednesday into Thursday.
At least five deaths related to extreme cold weather have been reported since Saturday in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, local media reports said.
Hundreds of flights, more than half of those scheduled, were cancelled on Wednesday out of Chicago O’Hare and Chicago Midway international airports, according to the flight tracking site FlightAware.
Amtrak cancelled all trains in and out of Chicago on Wednesday.
Most federal government offices in Washington D.C. opened three hours late on Wednesday due to frigid weather already impacting the area.
At the Morning Joy Farm in Mercer, North Dakota, Annie Carlson said her horses and sheep were doing fine.
“They can go into the barn if they wish,” she said. “They’re snuggled in, warm and toasty.” Her chickens, ducks and guinea hens were enjoying the 70-degree (21C) climate inside their greenhouse-like hoop house, she said.
Andrew Orrison, a meteorologist with the NWS, said some of the coldest wind chills were recorded in International Falls, Minnesota, at minus 55 (minus 48C). Even the South Pole in Antarctica was warmer, with an expected low of minus 24 (minus 31C) with wind chill.
Temperatures in Chicago will drop again “quite precipitously” on Wednesday night, Orrison said, potentially breaking the record low of minus 27 (minus 33C) on Jan. 21, 1985, the same day as Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration.
Banks and stores in the region, including multiple branches of Chase and Trader Joe’s, closed for business. Waste Management, a major trash collection company, said it was cancelling pick-ups in counties across the region on Wednesday and Thursday.
The bitter cold was caused by a displacement of the polar vortex, a stream of air that normally spins around the stratosphere over the North Pole, but whose current was disrupted and was now pushing south.
An Illinois police department found a fictitious cause for the icy blast, posting on Facebook that its officers had arrested Elsa, the frosty character from the Disney movie “Frozen,” for bringing the arctic air to the Midwest.
The McLean Police Department shared a staged photo of officers putting a woman dressed in a blue princess gown in pink handcuffs and escorting her into a police car.
Officials opened warming centres across the region, and in Chicago, police stations were open to anyone seeking refuge from the cold. Five city buses were also deployed to serve as mobile warming centres for homeless people, while city police handed out hats, jackets and blankets.
The Chicago Police Department said that at most, it could encourage people to get out of the cold. “But we will never force someone,” police officer Michael Carroll said.
U.S. homes and businesses will likely use record amounts of natural gas for heating on Wednesday, according to energy analysts.
Some residents just to the north and northwest of the Twin Cities in Minnesota were asked by Xcel Energy to dial down their thermostats to 60 (16C) because of the strains on its natural gas supply system.
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales, additional reporting by Joey Peters in Minneapolis, Alicia Underlee Nelson in Fargo, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Karen Pierog in Chicago, and Gina Cherelus, Scott DiSavino and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Berkrot and James Dalgleish)