Chicago: A whirlpool of frigid, dense air known as a "polar vortex" descended on Monday into much of the US, pummeling parts of the country with a dangerous cold that could break decades-old records with wind chill warnings stretching from Montana to Alabama.
For a big chunk of the Midwest, the subzero temperatures were moving in behind another winter wallop: more than 30cm of snow and high winds that made travelling 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: -35.5 degrees Celcius in Fargo, North Dakota; -29 in Madison, Wisonsin; and -26 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 45s and 50s.
Ray Pass gets a chance to use his cross country skis on a street in University City, St Louis near his home on Sunday morning.
"It's just a dangerous cold," said National Weather Service meteorologist Butch Dye in Missouri.
Even the term forecasters use to describe the potential cause of this weather pattern-"polar vortex," a counterclockwise-rotating pool of cold, dense air-sounds chilling.
"It's a semi-permanent circulation that's typically at higher latitudes across the world, like at the North Pole," says Bob Oravec, a forecaster with the National Weather Service. "But at the moment, the polar vortex is being pushed farther south into the US, transporting very cold air."
A suburban street looks like a ski trail in St. Louis where up to 40cm of snow fell and temperatures reached -22 degrees Celcius. Photo: Daniel Fallon
It hasn't been this cold for almost two decades in many parts of the country. Frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly at 26 to 34 below zero.
Between a heater that barely works and the drafty windows that invite the cold air into his home, Jeffery Davis decided he'd be better off sitting in a downtown Chicago doughnut shop for three hours on Monday until it was time to go to work. He threw on two pairs of pants, two t-shirts, "at least three jackets," two hats, a pair of gloves, the "thickest socks you'd probably ever find" and boots, and trudged to the train stop in his South Side neighbourhood that took him to within a few blocks of the library where he works.
"I never remember it ever being this cold," said Davis, 51. "I'm flabbergasted."
Few cars drive on Interstate 44 in St. Louis, Missouri on Sunday. Snow-covered roads and high winds were creating dangerous driving conditions from Missouri to Delaware on Sunday ahead of a "polar vortex" that'll bring below-zero temperatures not seen in decades to much of the nation in the coming days, likely setting records.
One after another, people came into the shop, some to buy coffee, others, like Davis, to just sit and wait.
Giovannni Lucero, a 29-year-old painter, said he was prepared for the storm. To keep his pipes from freezing, he'd left the faucet running and opened the kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to let the warm air in his house reach the pipes.
"We stocked up yesterday on groceries because you never know," Lucero said.
Michelle Rivas, left, and Danny Ruiz do their best to get comfortable after being stranded at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport because a snow storm canceled their flight home to Miami on Sunday.
And he was reminded on the way to work that he'd make the right decision to buy a four-wheel drive truck. "There were accidents everywhere because of the ice," he said.
Roads were treacherous across the region. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard upgraded the city's travel emergency level to "red," making it illegal for anyone to drive except for emergencies or to seek shelter. The city hasn't issued such a travel warning since 1978.
National Weather Service meteorologist Philip Schumacher urged motorists in the Dakotas — where wind chills were as low as the minus 50s — to carry winter survival kits and a charged mobile phone in case they became stranded.
Elnur Toktombetov, a Chicago taxi driver, awoke at 2:30 am Monday anticipating a busy day. By 3:25 am he was on the road, armed with hot tea and doughnuts. An hour into his shift, his Toyota's windows were still coated with ice on the inside.
"People are really not comfortable with this weather," Toktombetov said. "They're really happy to catch the cab. And I notice they really tip well."
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 totalled more than 28cm — the most since the February 2, 2011.
Police in suburban Detroit said heavy snow was believed to have caused a roof to collapse at an empty building in Lake Orion on Sunday evening. No one was hurt. More than 25cm of snow fell on Detroit.
Missouri transportation officials said it was too cold for rock salt to be effective, and several Illinois roadways were closed because of drifting snow.
More than 1000 flights were cancelled on Sunday at airports throughout the Midwest including Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis. More than 400 flights were cancelled at Chicago's airports Monday.
Many cities came to a virtual standstill. In St. Louis, where up to 40cm 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 Monday for the entire state of Minnesota, as well as cities and districts in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio 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 cancelled Monday.
Government offices and courts in several states closed Monday.
More than 40,000 homes and businesses in Indiana, 16,000 in Illinois and 2000 in Missouri were without power early Monday. Indianapolis spokesman Marc Lotter said emergency crews accompanied about 350 people to shelters around the city.
Ray Radlich was among the volunteers at New Life Evangelistic Center, a St. Louis homeless shelter, who braved the cold to search for the homeless and get them to shelters.
Among those Radlich and his team brought in Sunday was 55-year-old Garcia Salvaje, who has been without a home since a fire at his apartment last week. Salvaje, a veteran, had surgery three months ago for a spinal problem. The cold makes the pain from his still-healing back intense.
"I get all achy and pained all the way up my feet, to my legs, up my spine," Salvaje said.
Continuing a decades-old practice, Chicago Transit Authority was handing out fare cards to social service agencies to be distributed to the homeless so they could ride buses and trains to stay out of the cold.
Southern states were bracing for possible record temperatures too, with single-digit highs expected Tuesday in Georgia and Alabama.
Temperatures plunged below -6 early Monday in north Georgia, the frigid start of dangerously cold temperatures for the first part of the week. The Georgia Department of Transportation said its crews were prepared to respond to reports of black ice in north Georgia.
Temperatures were expected to dip below freezing in parts of Florida on Tuesday.