In the eye of the vortex

A man clenches his fists while walking past a steam vent on the morning of January 7, 2014 in New York, United States. A polar vortex has descended on much of North America, coming down from the Arctic, bringing record freezing temperatures across mu
A man clenches his fists while walking past a steam vent on the morning of January 7, 2014 in New York, United States. A polar vortex has descended on much of North America, coming down from the Arctic, bringing record freezing temperatures across much of the country. --PHOTO: AFP

Pulling a long-sleeved synthetic black Heat undershirt over my head and thermal "long johns" over my Fruit-of-the-Loom boxer briefs was only the beginning.

Next I donned a knit thermal crew undershirt, a wool sweater over that, a pair of synthetic ski gear pants, two pairs of socks, thick rubber boots, full-face cotton ski mask and Columbia ski gloves.

Finally I slipped into my Eddie Bauer premium goosedown parka and pulled its furry hood over the wool mask already over my head.

It took me almost 20 minutes. But I was finally ready - to make the 20-second trek down my driveway to dig my newspaper out of the snow and chisel the frozen mail out of my letter box, then dash back inside to thaw out.

Surviving winter in the midwestern and northeastern United States from Boston through my Cleveland hometown to Chicago and brutally frigid points like Fargo, North Dakota often requires allocating extra time just to "layer-up", as getting dressed is known in these parts at this time of year.

But the so-called "polar vortex" that brought record temperatures early this week (Jan 6-7 Cleveland time) that have not been felt here in Cleveland since the 19th century made it risky to go outside even with that kind of tedious dressing routine.

On Monday night (Tuesday morning Singapore time), temperature plummeted to minus 24 deg C outside my doors, breaking the 1884 record of minus 21 deg C, and stayed that way most of Tuesday. The wind chill reached minus 37 deg C, even below that of minus 35 deg C recorded at the South Pole, according to the National Weather service.

That made it too cold to risk children going out to catch the school bus. So my Singapore-born son, Sean, now 13, was happy to learn that his Christmas break had been extended by at least two days. The Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools superintendent called on Sunday and again twice on Monday to inform us that school would not resume until at least Wednesday.

Another CodeRed call from the city informed us that the garbage and bags of recycling that I'd braved the weather to put at the kerb for Monday morning collection would not be picked up until Wednesday. In order to drive home the risks, especially to parents of kids who might want to go sledding or build snowmen, TV news shows called on doctors to drive home the dangers of frostbite.

Dr Seth Podolsky of the Cleveland Clinic's emergency services told The Straits Times: "With the temperatures we've been having, if you have exposed skin, you can get frostbite in ten minutes." He said in severe cases, frostbite can result in the loss of fingers and limbs. "We've seen some severe cases already where limbs could be in jeopardy," he said.

Most people appeared to heed such warnings: A trip in my Singaporean wife, Mornee's, warm and rugged Honda Pilot SUV to a Swensen's in neighbouring Seven Hills for hot chocolate and a Galley Boy burger with her and Sean proved that. Cars were scarce on asphalt streets frozen to a frosty shade of white, and we were the only customers. The bundled-up young man who served us had only a few steps to our car window but we still felt that deserved a US$4 (S$5) tip.

When we stopped at Heinen's supermarket on the way back to stock up on food, I told Sean and Mornee not to inhale when walking from the car to the door, after breathing in a blast to my own lungs. Inside the cavernous supermarket, we found most employees standing around chatting with each other or filling shelves emptied by customers before the polar vortex engulfed us on Sunday night. I counted about three other customers in a store bigger than Cold Storage at Centrepoint.

On Saturday, Sean and I spent the night skiing at nearby Boston Mills resort, as we usually do from December to February. It was a relatively balmy minus 7 deg C then. But on Monday and Tuesday, the resort and its other area slopes at Brandywine and Alpine Valley closed - off-limits because of the life-threatening cold.

Cleveland made NBC TV's national primary nightly newscast on Monday as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum also closed, but even more so because the Horseshoe Casino downtown locks its doors until further notice - leaving droves of gamblers out in the cold.

Homeless shelters were operating at full capacity to accommodate more than 2,000 people who had come seeking warmth. Other cities and suburbs in the Cleveland areas also opened recreation centres, and churches opened meeting halls to families whose homes had lost power or gas to keep them heated.

As the mercury plummeted on Monday, the two furnaces in my house kicked on every 15 minutes or so to keep the indoors at a cosy 21 deg C. When they did, I heard disturbing loud pops and booms - a result of inside temperature and the brutal one outside causing the pipes and windows to expand and contract - and sometimes cracking. Downstairs, I found a worrying break in one of the glass blocks in a window, and water from melting ice and snow trickled in.

And, if my own "layer-up" routine sounds like a lot of work, a local postal worker named Mark tweeted that he would wear 22 pieces of clothing to carry the mail today - up from 20 pieces yesterday. It being Twitter, he had no space to list them all.

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