ATLANTA (REUTERS) - Tens of millions of Americans braved Arctic-like temperatures as low as minus 49 deg C on Thursday (Jan 31) that paralysed the US Midwest and were blamed for at least 21 deaths.
Warmer weather was on the way, but that offered little comfort to vulnerable populations such as the homeless and elderly enduring cold that caused frostbite in minutes and made being outside potentially deadly.
Officials across multiple states linked numerous deaths to the frigid air. The death toll rose from a previous 12 after at least nine more people in Chicago were reported to have died from cold-related injuries, according to Dr Stathis Poulakidas at the city’s John H Stroger Jr Hospital.
A University of Iowa student was found dead on campus of possible exposure early on Wednesday, according to university officials. The wind chill at the time police found Gerald Belz, 18, was minus 46 deg C, according to the National Weather Service.
Homeless and displaced people were particularly at risk, with Chicago and other cities setting up warming shelters. But many toughed it out in encampments or vacant buildings. A 60-year-old woman found dead in an abandoned house in Lorain, Ohio, was believed to have died of hypothermia, Lorain county coroner Stephen Evans said.
“There’s just no way if you’re not near a heat source that you can survive for very long out in weather like this,” Mr Evans told the Chronicle-Telegram newspaper.
It has been more than 20 years since a similar Arctic blast covered a swathe of the Midwest and Northeast, according to the weather service.
More than 30 record lows were shattered across the Midwest. Cotton, Minnesota, had the lowest national temperature recorded early on Thursday at minus 48 deg C before the weather warmed up, the weather service reported.
US homes and businesses used record amounts of natural gas for heating on Wednesday, according to preliminary results from financial data provider Refinitiv.
In Detroit, General Motors Co suspended operations at 11 Michigan plants after a utility made an emergency appeal to conserve natural gas. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV also cancelled a shift on Thursday at two of its plants.
Relatively balmier weather was on the horizon. By the weekend, Chicago was expected to bask in snow-melting highs around 10 deg C or lower, along with other parts of the Midwest, the weather service said.
In Washington, where the low hit minus 12 deg C and was expected to peak at only minus 4 deg C, a small crowd of tourists braved the cold to take pictures outside the White House.
"We're from a hot country... Heavens, it's very cold,"said Mr Vijen Nadasan, 49, a tourist from Johannesburg, South Africa, who planned to spend the day sightseeing with his wife and daughter.
"We've got to fight it out, right? Stay as warm as much as possible and fight it out."