The Chicago National Weather Service tweeted on Wednesday, Jan. 30, “The heart of the Arctic has arrived,” as the Polar Vortex descended into the midwest, plunging temperatures far below zero. The cold air front, which usually remains at the Earth’s poles, drifted toward the Midwest United States from late January into early February, disrupting infrastructure and threatening the health of the approximately 55 million of people in affected sub-zero areas.
The deadly cold front smashed records with wind chills as cold as minus 60 degrees and highs of minus 11 degrees. States centered around the Great Lakes, like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana suffered the worst of the deadly temperatures, though states as far as Missouri and Montana were impacted with weather below zero degrees.
With hazardous blizzard-like conditions and winds up to 40 mph preempting the arrival of the vortex, many states including Michigan and Iowa, issued states of emergency as early as Monday, Jan. 28. In a preemptive warning, Michigan Governor General Gretchen Whitmer released a statement in which she said, “Keeping Michiganders safe during this stretch of dangerously cold temperatures is our priority. Such widespread, extreme conditions have not occurred in Michigan for many years and it is imperative that we are proactive with record-low temperatures being predicted by the National Weather Service.”
As temperatures plummeted in January, warnings from the National Weather Service (NWS)
urged people to remain indoors and “avoid taking deep breaths; minimize talking” in order to protect lungs from the severe cold. Other warnings spoke of the dangers of frostbite, which NWS said could occur within 5 to 10 minutes of stepping outside.
Despite the warnings, however, the Polar Vortex has resulted in a reported 21 lives lost since it began on Jan. 30, including people freezing to death outside or in poorly heated homes, as well as incidents caused by hazardous travel conditions. Frostbite numbers have also been high, with one Chicago hospital reporting the treatment of nearly 50 patients for frostbite, a small portion of the many across the country who require medical attention ranging from minor care to amputations.
The cold was especially threatening to the homeless in cities across the country who sought shelter in federal facilities, in homes opened to them and warming shelters, which many cities established in public areas such as churches and libraries. In a statement on Thursday, Jan. 31, John Tribbett, who manages multiple homeless shelters throughout Minneapolis, said “This is really a historic event in terms of the dangers it presents to people living outside. Every year people lose limbs ― ears, toes ― to frostbite.” He further emphasized the threat to safety, telling people to call 311 or, in extreme cold, 911 if they see an unsheltered person. Similar messages were shared by other outreach programs and by emergency services throughout the midwest as the public was urged to stay aware of their surroundings.
The cold snap also halted infrastructure throughout the affected states, with various airlines canceling or delaying over 5,000 flights and Amtrak canceling all trains out of Chicago. Schools and colleges shut down for several days in response to the cold and many nonessential businesses halted operations. The event marked the sixth intrusion of the Polar Vortex into the United States in the last 50 years, with similar events occurring in 1977, 1982, 1989 and twice in 2014.
As the weather for 2019 returns to average and above average temperatures throughout mid-February, schools have reopened, ice has thawed and conditions have returned to normal. However, public officials continue to urge politicians to address homelessness issues that put hundreds of lives at stake, while hundreds across the country recover from injuries obtained during the weather event.