'Polar vortex' plunges area into deep freeze
January 06, 2014 10:50 AM
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CHICAGO — A whirlpool of frigid, dense air known as a “polar vortex” descended today into much of the U.S., pummeling parts of the country with a dangerous cold that could break decades-old records with wind chill warnings stretching from Montana to Alabama.

The first hint of the frigid front woke Indiana County residents early this morning, as high winds swept the county, dropping temperatures from a midnight reading of nearly 50 degrees to about 30 at daybreak.

At 2 a.m., winds peaked at the Indiana County Jimmy Stewart Airport at 52 mph, blustery enough to blow the flag from the pole at the airfield, a spokesman said. Tree limbs littered the Indiana area much the same as following summer thunderstorms.

Evidence of the eastward movement of the front could be taken from the online report of school schedule changes in the region. The Armstrong School District closed for the day and classes were delayed two hours in every other district in Armstrong County. In Indiana County, only the Blairsville-Saltsburg and Homer-Center districts called two-hour delays and the Head Start program closed down for the day.

Human services officials in Indiana County advised that homeless people would be taken in, if encountered by police officers, IndiGO bus drivers or church officials during the arctic freeze.

The Indiana County Human Services Department said the Pathway, Family Promise and Alice Paul House shelters would be contacted first for bed space for people needing shelter. If necessary, the Indiana County Community Action Program would arrange for hotel rooms and follow-up by a case manager for people with no place to stay, according to Human Services Director Bonni Dunlap.

[PHOTO: Allan Umscheid, owner of Yards By Al in Lawrence, Kan, feels the bitter wind and catches drifting snow on his face as he runs a snow blower early Sunday morning, Jan. 5, 2014. Several inches of snow fell on the Lawrence area overnight and wind chill values are forecast to be as low as minus 25 to minus 32 Sunday night through Monday morning. (AP Photo/The Journal-World, Mike Yoder)]

For a big chunk of the Midwest, the subzero temperatures were moving in behind another winter wallop: more than a foot of snow and high winds that made traveling treacherous. Officials closed schools in cities including Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee and warned residents to stay indoors and avoid the frigid cold altogether.

The forecast is extreme: 32 below zero in Fargo, N.D.; minus 21 in Madison, Wis.; and 15 below zero in Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Chicago. Wind chills — what it feels like outside when high winds are factored into the temperature — could drop into the minus 50s and 60s.

It hasn’t been this cold for almost two decades in many parts of the country. Frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly at 15 to 30 degrees below zero.

Lorna West, a 43-year-old student and consultant from Columbus, Ohio, said she doesn’t believe people unaccustomed to such weather are ready for what’s coming.

A Chicago native, she said thermal underwear, lots of layers and “Eskimo coats” with zipped hoods to block the wind were the norm growing up.

“And don’t go out if you don’t have to,” she said.

For several Midwestern states, the bitter cold was adding to problems caused by a weekend snow storm. The National Weather Service said the snowfall at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport totaled more than 11 inches as of 6 p.m. Sunday — the most since the Feb. 2, 2011, storm that shut down the city’s famed Lake Shore Drive.

Missouri transportation officials said it was too cold for rock salt to be very effective, and several Illinois roadways were closed because of drifting snow.

A bus taking the Southern Illinois University men’s basketball team home from a game at Illinois State got stuck in the snow Sunday night off Interstate 57, forcing the group to wait for a tow truck and make plans for a night at a hotel in nearby Tuscola, Ill.

More than 1,000 flights were canceled Sunday at airports throughout the Midwest.

Many cities came to a virtual standstill. In St. Louis, where more than 10 inches of snow fell, the Gateway Arch, St. Louis Art Museum and St. Louis Zoo were part of the seemingly endless list of things closed. Shopping malls and movie theaters closed, too. Even Hidden Valley Ski Resort, the region’s only ski area, shut down.

School was called off today for the entire state of Minnesota, as well as cities and districts in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana and Iowa, among others. Chicago Public School officials reversed an earlier decision to keep schools open, announcing late in the day Sunday that classes would be canceled today.

Government offices and courts in several states closed today. In Indiana, the General Assembly postponed the opening day of its 2014 session, and the state appellate courts, including the Indiana Supreme Court, said they would be closed.

Southern states are bracing for possible record temperatures, too, with single-digit highs expected Tuesday in Georgia and Alabama.

Temperatures are expected to dip into the 30s in parts of Florida on Tuesday. Though Florida Citrus Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows said it must be at 28 degrees or lower four hours straight for fruit to freeze badly, fruits and vegetables were a concern in other parts of the South.

Gazette reporter Chauncey Ross contributed to this report.

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