VIDEO: Cold weather turns lethal in the US

Homeless man Clifton Johnson tells US correspondent Nick O'Malley how he plans to survive temperatures below -20 degrees Centigrade on the streets of Chicago.

Chicago: As the “polar vortex” bringing record low temperatures crept across America on Monday, the cold became so intense that for a time it became difficult to describe.

Some weather forecasters began to simply refer to “dangerous cold” and newspapers published tips on avoiding frostbite and lung damage.

“If you can stay indoors, please do so,” said Gary Schenkel, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. “Everyday activities may not be feasible.”

On Monday morning it was colder at Chicago airport, a record-breaking 26 degrees below zero - or 42 below with wind chill - than it was at the South Pole, where it was minus 23. The National Weather Service warned that “potentially life-threatening wind chills will continue through [until] Tuesday morning".

Chicago. Picture REUTERS

A meteorologist in Wisconsin became a minor internet celebrity when he posted a video of himself hurling a pot of boiling water into the wind, only to duck as the droplets turned to snow and blew back on him.

The Chicago Tribune ran a video online of a water bottle appearing to freeze in seconds.

Practically, the temperature meant that in Chicago standing out of the wind, in the sun, in layers of warm clothes, wearing a warm hat and gloves, the cold grabbed you fast. Breathing deeply was difficult and possibly dangerous. Moisture in the nose stiffened and froze with each breath. Exposed skin soon began to hurt.

Despite a fleet of snow ploughs working on the runways, the airport had cancelled 1600 flights before midday. Most schools were closed and many workers were allowed to work from home. Even the city’s prison system was forced to accommodate the terrible cold, allowing inmates due for release to stay on overnight if they chose.

Traffic flowed reasonably well in the city, but snow drifts blown by high winds blocked interstate highways throughout the day and many suburban streets remained impassable.

More than 500 Amtrak passengers spent the night on three stopped trains headed for Chicago because of blowing and drifting snow in north-central Illinois. A spokesman said the trains — coming from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Quincy, Illinois — are operating on tracks owned by BNSF railroad and crews are working to reopen the tracks.

The passengers have since been taken by bus to Chicago.

Around Chicago six "warming centres" were established for homeless people, and the city’s largest homeless shelter, Pacific Garden Mission, prepared to break its record of overnight visitors, 1016, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

“We will set up mats on the ground and use every available space we can,” said Phil Kwiatkowski, president of the mission.

Staff of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services spent the day patrolling areas where the homeless are known to congregate.

“We can’t legally, physically remove somebody from their locations if they refuse to go,” the department’s commissioner, Evelyn Diaz, told the Sun-Times. “If somebody refuses to leave, no matter what, we will know where they are, we will keep close tabs on them.”

By the end of the day four people  were reported to have died in the cold, each of them collapsing as they shovelled snow. Hospitals in the area reported cases of frostbite.

As the sun set at about 5pm the city was preparing for another day of similar temperatures.

The freezing conditions continue to have a major impact across the country:

* Forecasters said some 187 million people in all could feel the effects of the "polar vortex" by the time it spreads across the country. Tennessee utility officials braced for near-record power demand, while Ohio prepared for its coldest temperatures in decades.

* PJM Interconnection, who operates the power grid supplying energy to more than 61 million people in parts of the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and South, has asked users to conserve electricity Tuesday because of the cold, especially in the morning and late afternoon.

* Recovery will be the focus in several Midwestern states on Tuesday, since the subzero cold followed up to 40cm of snow and high winds that made travelling treacherous — especially on interstates in Indiana and Illinois — and was being blamed for numerous deaths in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

* Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Indiana Governor Mike Pence issued disaster declarations, paving the way to request federal aid.

* More than 30,000 customers in Indiana were without power late Monday night. Utility crews worked to restore electricity as temperatures plunged into the negative teens, but officials cautioned some people could be in the cold and dark for days.

* JetBlue Airways, which stopped all scheduled flights to and from New York and Boston on Monday, planned to resume some flights on Tuesday morning. Southwest Airlines operations in Chicago resumed on Monday night, even if it was, as a spokesman for the Texas-based airline called it, "a trickle."

* And warmer temperatures — at least, near or above freezing — are in store for the Midwest. Indianapolis should reach -32 degrees on Wednesday, and other parts of the central US could climb above freezing later in the week.

SMH.COM.AU with AP

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