Record-breaking blasts of Arctic air caused at least a dozen deaths in the U.S. Midwest as the cold spread eastward on Jan. 31 to the Northeast, leaving behind a trail of school closures, major travel disruptions, and the suspension of U.S. Postal Service deliveries in some areas.
Icy conditions, brutal winds, and temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit rocked the Midwest. Higher temperatures expected this weekend offered little respite to those struggling with the sub-zero torment.
“This morning is some of the coldest of the temperatures across the upper Midwest, and we still have some dangerous wind chills,” said Andrew Orrison, a National Weather Service forecaster.
The bitter cold was caused by the displacement of the polar vortex, a stream of air that normally spins around the stratosphere over the North Pole but whose current was disrupted. It pushed eastward, and states including Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania experienced bitterly cold temperatures. Boston reached minus 5 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
“This morning is the worst of the worst in terms of the cold,” Orrison said. “It’ll be the coldest outbreak of Arctic air for the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.”
Due to the low temperature, states of emergency were issued in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan.
In Minnesota and upper Michigan, temperatures were at minus 20 on Jan. 31 and parts of North Dakota had temperatures of minus 30. Meanwhile, Chicago had near-record temperatures of minus 23 on Jan. 30 and minus 21 on Jan. 31.
According to Accuweather’s RealFeel temperatures—which calculates how the outside temperature is perceived by the average person—the Upper Midwest felt like minus 77 degrees on Jan. 29, where it was reported at Thief River Falls, Minnesota.
Temperatures at this range can cause frostbite on exposed skin in just a few minutes. The condition results in a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. Common areas affected by frostbite are the body’s extremities—the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes.
Beginning signs of redness or pain in any skin area may be a sign of frostbite starting to form. It can also permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The cold snap has caused at least 12 deaths across the Midwest since Jan. 26, according to officials and media reports. Some died from apparent exposure to the elements, others in weather-related traffic accidents.
One death involved an elderly Illinois man whose body was found hours after he had fallen trying to get back into his home. Another was a University of Iowa student whose body was found behind an academic hall several hours before dawn, according to the Associated Press.
The extreme weather prompted President Donald Trump to issue a warning about the coming chilling temperatures.
“In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder,” he wrote on Twitter in part on Jan. 28. “People can’t last outside even for minutes.”
USPS Takes Cover
In a rare move, the U.S. Postal Service suspended mail delivery on Jan. 30 in parts or all of several Midwest states, including Michigan, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. Mail service won’t be restored in Michigan until Feb. 1, officials said.
Schools in parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa remained closed, but students headed back to school Jan. 31 in eastern North Dakota, where the weather was forecast to crawl out of double-digit sub-zero temperatures.
Video footage this week showed boiling water freeze as it was tossed into the air in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and transit workers in Chicago, Illinois, set fire to train tracks to keep them from locking up.
Even parts of the South, such as the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, and upper Georgia, were in the single digits.
The weather caused hundreds of traffic accidents, including a chain-reaction collision of about two dozen cars in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during a white-out on Jan. 30, local media reported.
More than 2,500 flights were canceled and more than 3,500 were delayed on the morning of Jan. 31, most of them out of Chicago’s O’Hare International and Midway International airports, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.com.
General Motors suspended operations at 11 Michigan plants and its Warren Tech Center after a utility company made an emergency appeal to customers to conserve natural gas. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV also canceled a shift on Jan. 31 at two of its plants.
It’s been more than two decades since a similar Arctic blast covered a swath of the Midwest and Northeast.
Reuters contributed to this report.