US hunkers down for 'polar vortex'

Last updated 16:24 06/01/2014

Severe weather blows through parts of the Midwest US, delaying travelers, freezing roadways, and closing schools. Julie Noce reports.

Washington DC cold
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A frozen wall on a beach in Chicago.

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The hardy US city of Minneapolis, more or less unfazed by today's sub-zero temperatures, is taking no chances with the kind of weather forecast for tomrrow, when the low is predicted to be minus 24 degrees Celsius and the wind chill could drop to -45C.

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Goveror Mark Dayton has ordered schools closed statewide, one big employer, 3M, has told employees to stay home, and Minneapolis has shut down its parks to keep people indoors.

"This is the first time we have used the 'particularly dangerous situation' (PDS) wording with a Wind Chill Warning," the National Weather Service in the Twin Cities tweeted. Wind chills farther north could approach -54C, forecasters said, warning that exposed flesh would freeze in minutes.

With a "polar vortex" bringing some of the coldest weather in years across the nation's midsection and into the East and South, delays and closings were already set for the start of the workweek. For much of the Midwest, the deep freeze and efforts to prepare for it have begun.

Temperatures were predicted to drop to -26C at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport by dawn on Monday local time, prompting major universities and hundreds of private schools, businesses and day-care centers to announce they would shut down.

But the Chicago Public Schools system said it would open and told parents in a recorded hotline message that building engineers would "fire up the furnaces on Sunday to ensure a safe, warm learning environment."

At O'Hare Airport, 1,200 flights - about half the total traffic - were cancelled today, according to the flight tracker FlightAware. Airports in St Louis and Indianapolis also saw about half their scheduled departures and landings cancelled, the same site showed.

In New York, a plane from Toronto landed at Kennedy International Airport early Sunday and slid into snow as it turned from a runway onto a taxiway. No one was injured and the airport temporarily suspended operations because of icy runways.

North of Indianapolis, Jamie Aitken, a Kiwi from Ashburton now living in Carmel, Indiana, said in an email that the city had received about 22 cm of snow so far.

"Tonight we have a low of -26 Celsius and then tomorrow the wind chill will be around -37 Celsius. Snow-wise I still think the big snow storm of 2006 in Canterbury was worse, but the cold tomorrow will be horrific and I'm not particularly looking forward to the frostbite risk."

Minnesota's preparations qualified as unusual, although not unprecedented, in a state whose residents famously take winter's cold and snow in stride. The last time a governor ordered the schools closed across the state was 1997.

"I've lived here for six years, and I've never heard of the cold closing anything," said Kim Glynn, a physician who was at the Mall of America in Bloomington with her husband and two children.

But today was brilliantly crisp and sunny, perfect for hockey on the frozen Lake of the Isles in the city's Kenwood section, where Nelson Fox, Kyle Granberger and Tony Porter were skating in the early afternoon, when temperatures hovered at about -21C.

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"It's about the only thing to do in Minnesota in the wintertime," said Fox, 24, who runs a Web development company with Granberger. A warming trailer at the edge of the lake had been closed, perhaps to discourage the kind of activity the three friends were undertaking.

On a trail around the lake, at least two people dressed in heavy clothing - including ski masks - were jogging, and a lone bicyclist could be seen heading slowly into the distance. A couple of dog walkers trudged across snow.

"You've got to embrace where you live. You can't run away from it," said Nate Peterson, a social studies teacher at Delano Middle School. "Otherwise, you might as well move to Florida."

Peterson, his wife, Jen, and their 2-year-old, Leighton, weren't exactly embracing the cold, but they hadn't run away, either. They had ventured to the Mall of America, one of the largest shopping centers in the US, which was filling rapidly  as the prospect of a day at home tomorrow loomed.

"Normally on the weekend, we go sledding, play in the snow," Peterson said in the shadow of the mall's indoor roller coaster.

On Saturday, the family had gone to the zoo, but that will be closed now as well, because part of it is outdoors. Tomorrow was looking like a day of indoor knee hockey and arts and crafts.

"People are gutsy. People try to show how tough they are," Peterson said. "When it's this . . . cold, to us it's not worth it."

"We'll stay inside. It'll be a long day," agreed Jennifer Calnon of Rosemont, who will care for two children while her husband works a 13-hour shift as a pharmacist. "We'll build some forts and finger paint."

And there will be no hockey Monday for Fox, although not because of the cold.

"I'm flying to Vegas," he said. "Family vacation." From there, he said, he would be heading to Tahiti.

-Washington Post


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