Polar vortex to seize Midwest with coldest weather in a generation

Heavy snow and gusting winds created blizzard-like conditions Monday across parts of the Midwest, prompting officials to close hundreds of schools, courthouses, and businesses as forecasters warn that dangerously cold weather is right behind the snowstorm.

Midwest forecast
Robert Delgado shovels in front of the Milwaukee Public Library on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. –Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP

CHICAGO — The polar vortex is back and the forecasts are dire: A quick punch of snow, followed almost immediately by a life-threatening level of cold that a generation of Midwesterners has never experienced.

Already on Monday, the misery was on full display. In Chicago, where an overnight snow covered the streets and snarled the commute to work, cars spun their tires at major intersections and could be seen struggling to move at all on side streets. Even some dogs donned boots. In Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis, public schools called off classes. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan sent most state workers home early. By midday, more than 1,400 flights across the country had been canceled, according to FlightAware.

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“We are getting a lot of snow in very little time,” Mayor Andy Schor of Lansing, Michigan, said in a statement Monday as he declared a snow emergency. “People need to stay off of the streets so that we can clear them properly.”

The snow was expected to push east later on Monday, but the danger in the Midwest was only expected to grow as temperatures plunged dozens of degrees. In northern Indiana, the University of Notre Dame announced that it was closing because of the cold. In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers declared a state of emergency and told the National Guard to be ready to assist.

Forecasters expect Wednesday’s high temperature (yes, the high) to be minus 14 in both Chicago and Minneapolis, with wind chills as low as minus 50 in Chicago and minus 60 in Minneapolis. If the forecast holds, it would be Chicago’s lowest daily high temperature on record. The low of minus 22 was expected to approach, though not surpass, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Chicago.

The vortex, a brutal mass of cold air with strong bands of circulating winds, left its normal location near the North Pole and spread southward in recent weeks, bringing arctic weather to the middle of the United States.

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“This is what you would expect when you get into central and northern Canada,” said Brian Hurley, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Hurley said the worst of the polar vortex was expected to extend from northern Illinois and Wisconsin, west through Minnesota, Iowa and the eastern part of the Dakotas, settling in late Tuesday and lasting into Thursday. All of those states are well acquainted with harsh winters, but many of them have not seen weather this cold since 1994, Hurley said.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made comparisons on Monday to the winter of 2013-14, when the city was plagued by frigid weather and referred to as “Chiberia” — the result of another polar vortex. Chicago officials promised city buses for homeless people to warm up in, warned landlords to be sure that units are properly heated and gave detailed instructions on how to deal with frozen pipes.

“In the event that pipes freeze: Again, please do not use an open flame,” said Randy Conner, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Water Management. Heating pads and hair dryers work well, he suggested.

Steven Davis, the fire chief in Madison, Wis., said Sunday that “these are tough times” and that he was making preparations for the colder weather to arrive, including decisions about which equipment to deploy to different types of emergencies.

“We’re very concerned about the arctic air and the temperatures,” Chief Davis said. “Obviously, temperatures like this and water don’t mix real well.”

Mr. Hurley said the worst of the polar vortex was expected to extend from northern Illinois and Wisconsin, west through Minnesota, Iowa and the eastern part of the Dakotas, settling in late Tuesday and lasting into Thursday. All of those states are well acquainted with harsh winters, but many of them have not seen weather this cold since 1994, Mr. Hurley said.

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The polar vortex was also leading to emergency preparations and school cancellations in the South, where temperatures were expected to be decidedly less polar but where residents are less accustomed to dealing with the cold. In Louisiana, where meteorologists expected one to two inches of snow, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said it had activated its crisis action team.

Officials appeared the most unnerved in Georgia, which will host the Super Bowl on Sunday. Gov. Brian P. Kemp said state offices would be closed on Tuesday in 35 counties, including some in the Atlanta area, as the state prepared for ice and up to two inches of snow.

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