US 'polar vortex' creates unbearable cold

2014-01-07 08:32
Larry Thomas snow blows several inches of snow from a sidewalk as the area deals with record breaking freezing weather. (Joshua Lott, AFP)

Larry Thomas snow blows several inches of snow from a sidewalk as the area deals with record breaking freezing weather. (Joshua Lott, AFP)

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Minneapolis - The coldest, most dangerous blast of polar air in decades gripped the US Midwest and pushed toward the east and south and eastern Canada on Monday, closing schools and day care centres, grounding flights and forcing people to pull their hoods and scarves tight to protect exposed skin from nearly instant frostbite.

Many across the nation's midsection went into virtual hibernation, while others dared to venture out in temperatures that plunged well below -18°C.

"I'm going to try to make it two blocks without turning into crying man", said Brooks Grace, who was bundling up to do some banking and shopping in downtown Minneapolis, where temperatures reached -31°C, with wind chills of -45°C. "It's not cold, it's painful."

The mercury also dropped into negative territory in Milwaukee, St Louis and Chicago, which set a record for the date at -27°C. Wind chills across the region were below 40°C and colder. Records also fell in Oklahoma, Texas and Indiana.

Forecasters said some 187 million people in all could feel the effects of the "polar vortex" by the time it spread across the country on Monday night and on Tuesday.

'Wreckers'

Record lows were possible in the East and South, with highs in the single digits of -13°C expected on Tuesday in Georgia and Alabama. Wind chills were expected to reach -2°C in Atlanta and -24°C in Baltimore.

From the Dakotas to Maryland, schools and day care centres shut down.

For a big swath of the Midwest, the bone-chilling cold moved in behind another winter wallop: more than 30cm of snow and high winds that made travelling treacherous.

Several deaths were blamed on the snow, ice and cold since Saturday, including the death of a 1-year-old boy who was in a car that went out of control and collided with a snowplough on Monday in Missouri.

It took authorities using 10 ton military vehicles known as "wreckers" until early on Monday to clear all the chain-reaction accidents caused when several vehicles jack-knifed along snowy interstates in southern Illinois. The crash stranded about 375 vehicles, but there were no fatalities or injuries, largely because motorists either stayed with their cars or were rescued and taken to nearby warming centres if they were low on gas or didn't have enough coats or blankets, said Jonathon Monken, director of the Illinois emergency management agency. Others got stuck in the snowdrifts, including the Southern Illinois men's basketball team, which had to spend the night sleeping in a church.

Cancelled flights

In the eastern United States, temperatures ranged in the single digits to the low teens on Monday which helped melt piles of snow from a storm last week, raising the risk that roads would freeze over as the cold air moved in Monday night, said Bob Oravec from the weather prediction centre in College Park, Maryland.

The snap was set to be dramatic; Springfield, Massachusetts, enjoyed 13°C on Monday morning but faced an overnight low -14°C.

More than 3 700 flights were cancelled by late Monday afternoon, following a weekend of travel disruption across the US. Airline officials said de-icing fluid was freezing, fuel was pumping sluggishly, and ramp workers were having difficulty loading and unloading luggage.

JetBlue Airways stopped all scheduled flights to and from New York and Boston on Monday. Southwest had to ground to a halt in Chicago earlier in the day, but by the evening, flights resumed in "a trickle", a spokesperson said.

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- AP
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