Some hardy Chicagoans brave polar vortex to get to work, help others

VIDEO: REUTERS
 A man walks along the lakefront as temperatures hovered around -20 degrees on Jan 30, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.
A man walks along the lakefront as temperatures hovered around -20 degrees on Jan 30, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. PHOTO: AFP

CHICAGO (DPA) - Armed with steaming hot coffee, hand warmers, multiple socks and layer upon layer of thermal gear, residents across the Chicago area steeled themselves against an Arctic surge that gripped the upper Midwest on Wednesday (Jan 30) as dangerously cold conditions brought the city and suburbs to a near standstill.

The now-infamous polar vortex was at it again, plummeting the region into a cold snap so frigid it made the South Pole look like a day at the beach.

It was such a precipitous drop in temperature - minus 31 deg C - at a certain point, all residents and business owners could do was shake their stocking cap-covered heads in disbelief.

"A couple of people have come in asking me if I've seen a penguin outside," said Mr David Avalos, who served a steady stream of resilient customers ordering cream cheese turnovers at La Luz Bakery in north suburban Mundelein.

The sustained blast of subzero temperatures was far from a laughing matter, however, leading to dozens of frostbite injuries at area hospitals and several traffic crashes on ice-covered interstates in Illinois and north-west Indiana.

Thousands of people who had to make the frigid trek to work endured harrowing commutes on delayed commuter rail and CTA trains, emergency visits to gas stations for wiper fluid and anti-freeze or bone-chilling waits at bus stops.

"I didn't have a clue it would be this bad until I got out here," said Mr Tyler Peterson, pulling a tan scarf over his face as he stood unprotected from the flag-snapping wind on Mannheim Road in Stone Park, waiting for a bus that would take him home to Hillside after an overnight shift in a nearby warehouse.

"I can feel it on my skin and all over my body, even with the layers."

Other closures left travellers with few options but to stay hunkered down at home. Amtrak suspended service into and out of Chicago, and thousands of flights were cancelled at O'Hare and Midway airports.

Even the US Postal Service suspended service.

The polar plunge set a record low on Wednesday. The temperature reached -31 deg C at O'Hare International Airport, with a wind chill of 47 deg C below zero, according to the National Weather Service. That shattered the previous mark of -26 deg C set in 1966.

"Today's about as cold as it can get in Chicago," said Mr Matt Friedlein, a meteorologist with the weather service.

And the wrath of the polar vortex has not yet passed. The all-time record low temperature for Chicago, -33 deg C, was in play overnight into Thursday, weather forecasters said, and temperatures were not expected to visit zero or above until Thursday night. Normal highs are not expected until Saturday.

With schools shuttered and many businesses and government offices closed because of the extreme conditions, most people heeded weather and health experts' advice, staying inside, huddling up at home with a good book, binge-worthy television or stir-crazy children.

Chicago Public Schools cancelled all classes and activities that were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. Most schools and some churches and other institutions have been listing closings on the Emergency Closing Centre website. Most colleges, courts, cultural institutions and libraries were closed on Wednesday, and many plan to be closed on Thursday morning as well.

Parts of the South Side in Chicago looked like ghost towns as normally crowded outdoor Metra platforms were empty and Red Line stations were abandoned. Churches, daycare centres, banks, nail shops and hair salons posted closed for business signs on their doors.

But elsewhere, life went on, especially for those who had to work.

Trucks rumbled over salt-covered roads delivering groceries and supplies, many fast-food places, grocery stores and pharmacies throughout the city and suburbs were open, and auto supply stores did brisk business.

Mr Willie Taylor nursed a cup of coffee in the McDonald's lobby in Englewood. He said his wife needed to report to her job at a local grocery store, so he got up early to get the car warmed up and drive her there.

"I came out to crank the car and I've been moving around ever since," said the 71-year-old Auburn Gresham resident. "You've got to move around in this weather. You can't just stand in one place."

 
 
 
 

Ms Rebecca Steinmann, an emergency department nurse at Lurie Children's Hospital, was not taking any chances. She had her husband drive her to the station from her house eight blocks away, even though she was armoured against the cold with thermal underwear, hand warmers and toe warmers. She was hopeful she would not see many cold-related injuries when she arrived at work.

With most people holed up inside, the effects of the cold initially appeared to be minimal, according to area hospital and health officials. Chicago hospitals saw 14 emergency department visits for frostbite and/or hypothermia between 5.30am on Tuesday and 5.30am on Wednesday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Across the rest of the state, hospital emergency departments had 16 visits for those conditions between 2am on Tuesday and 10am on Wednesday.

Loyola University Medical Centre in Maywood had six cases of frostbite as of late Wednesday morning - a higher-than-usual number for a winter day, spokesman Jim Ritter said. But many hospitals across the Chicago area reported relatively quiet emergency departments overnight on Tuesday and Wednesday morning.

The city and collar counties set up warming shelters for those in need, and city officials reminded landlords to keep the heat on at apartments across the area. Chicago's Department of Buildings took action on Wednesday to restore heat at four properties in neighbourhoods across the city.

The city provided official warming centres, but the dangerously cold weather gave some community organisers and volunteers a chance to use their skills in a new way. Two warming centres operated by the city's Department of Family and Support Services will be open 24 hours. On the South Side, the King Centre is at 4314 S. Cottage Grove Ave., in Bronzeville, and on the West Side the Garfield Centre is at 10 S.Kedzie Ave., in the Fifth City neighbourhood.

Senior centres across the city have extended hours to 8pm. An additional 500 beds were being sent to shelters. The city is also coordinating with religious leaders to reach out to vulnerable people, including senior citizens and those with disabilities, city officials said. Park District field houses, which often have evening hours, are for the first time this winter formally among the buildings being used as warming centres.

At Lincoln United Methodist Church in Pilsen, three women transformed the basement space normally used for exercise classes for Healthy Hood Chicago into a sleeping and warming shelter. Dozens of men piled in, laying on pallets of blankets, watching TV and eating beans and salad and sipping coffee.

For Ms Laundi Keepseagle, 28, the grassroots effort was a way to serve an overlooked population.

"We wanted undocumented individuals to have a place to go," said Ms Keepseagle, who works with SaveMoneySaveLife, an advocacy group supported by rapper Vic Mensa.

"We thought we could create a space for people who fall in the gaps. We're serving food, giving out clothes. Our main purpose is to make our guests feel at home."

The effort came together in hours on Tuesday. Volunteers posted on social media, canvassed the neighbourhood with fliers and did one-on-one outreach with residents they saw camping on the streets.

By Tuesday night, 34 people showed up to sleep on the floor and get a meal. On Wednesday, there were nearly 60 people staying there.

The cold led to a wave of power outages, downtown and in the suburbs.

A portion of the Loop lost power at 1.20pm because of an outage, according to ComEd. The outage affected about 400 customers in an area near Monroe Street and Wabash Avenue. Earlier in the day, as many as 25,000 ComEd customers in the city and suburbs were without power for a time, ComEd spokesman John Schoen said.

Amtrak cancelled Chicago-area service for Wednesday and expected to halt most trains for Thursday also. The South Shore Line suspended service on Wednesday. Metra announced the agency was honouring South Shore tickets, according to its website. On the CTA, the Yellow Line, which travels to suburban Skokie, experienced delays because of signal problems.

At Chicago airports, more than 1,700 flights were cancelled as of about 1pm on Wednesday, according to the city's Aviation Department.

After about 1,400 flights were cancelled on Monday at Chicago airports because of snowstorms, about 600 were cancelled on Tuesday.