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By Alex Johnson

The harsh, frigid weather that has been blamed for at least nine deaths so far will continue to blast critically low temperatures across the Midwest before conditions finally begin to warm up late Thursday, forecasters said.

The extreme cold, sent by the polar vortex, was keeping its grip on Chicago and the rest of the Great Lakes region, the National Weather Service said, forecasting lake effect snow of 3 to 4 feet downwind of Lake Ontario.

Combined with the system's strong winds, blizzard conditions were expected across the region. But the weather service said the system would shift northward by Thursday afternoon, accompanied by a gradual warmup.

The frigid, icy conditions have been blamed for as many as nine deaths so far:

  • A University of Iowa student was found dead behind a campus building early Wednesday in an incident the university said may have been weather-related.
  • A person was killed in extreme wind-chill conditions in Tazewell County, Illinois, on Tuesday, state emergency management officials said. The exact circumstances weren't immediately clear, and emergency officials provided no information about the victim.
  • An 82-year-old man died Tuesday afternoon after he was found suffering from hypothermia outside his home in Pekin, Illinois, the Peoria County Coroner's Office said.
  • A man was killed when he was struck by a city snowplow at the end of his driveway Monday morning in Libertyville, Illinois, southwest of Waukegan, city officials said. The snowplow driver was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.
  • A man was found frozen in a detached garage near his home in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, apparently after he had been shoveling snow, the county medical examiner's office said Tuesday.
  • A 31-year-old man was killed Monday when he lost control of his vehicle, struck a light pole and was ejected on icy Interstate 80 north of Des Moines, Iowa. The state patrol said the man was driving too fast for road conditions.
  • A 50-year-old man was also killed on I-80 in Iowa when a semi rear-ended his car, which landed in a ditch. The Iowa State Patrol was reporting icy road conditions at the time.
  • A 9-year-old Nebraska boy died Sunday when the vehicle he was traveling in lost traction on icy I-80 in Cass County, Iowa, and rolled into a ditch. Five other people were injured, the Iowa State Patrol said.
  • A 70-year-old man was found dead Wednesday outside a home in Detroit.

Temperatures were expected to again plummet to record or near-record lows during the day over many parts of the wider Upper Midwest, following Wednesday's lows in which Fargo, North Dakota, hit minus 31 degrees, Minneapolis reached minus 27 and Chicago fell to minus 23.

More than 1,500 flight arrivals and departures were canceled at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Wednesday, and almost 1,400 of Thursday's arrivals and departures were scrubbed in advance.

Amtrak said it would try to resume some service through Chicago on Thursday after all trains were canceled Wednesday, but it said the Midwest Corridor service through the city would remain shuttered.

The U.S. Postal Service said mail delivery would again be canceled Thursday across many ZIP codes in Michigan, Indiana, central Illinois and western Pennsylvania.

"I think hell froze over, and I've been using hand warmers," Bryante Fletcher of Waterloo, Iowa, said Wednesday.

"I actually jacked my heat up to 80 last night — just for a spell, because I don't want my bill to be ridiculous," Fletcher told NBC affiliate WHO of Des Moines.

Hell, in fact, did freeze over.

The temperature fell to minus 15 Wednesday in Hell, Michigan — population 76 — where Jerry Duffie, a groundskeeper, told NBC affiliate WDIV of Detroit: "It's a brutal day in Hell. It's colder than hell."

Daniel Szetu Gomez, a software engineering student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering who hails from Venezuela, said Wednesday was the coldest day of his life.

Back home, "it's always been around 30 degrees Celsius — which is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit," Szetu Gomez told NBC affiliate WTMJ of Milwaukee. "That's year-round."

"My face is really cold," he said. "It's like somebody is putting a block of ice on my face."

Meanwhile, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin spent much of Wednesday fighting the critical blowback from his observation that schools in Kentucky probably shouldn't have closed because Americans are too "soft."

"Now we cancel school for cold," Bevin said Tuesday in a radio interview. "I mean, there's no ice going with it or any snow. What happens to America? We're getting soft."

The reaction Wednesday was chilling. NBC News meteorologist Al Roker called Bevin a "nitwit," while state Attorney General Andy Beshear — who's running for Bevin's job — characterized the comments as "another example of what (sic) this governor is not fit for office."

Bevin's response? He doubled down.

Bevin said Wednesday night on Twitter that "the tattered remnants of the mainstream media ... (including weatherman @alroker)" were "cutting & pasting quotes in order to mislead & elicit 'outrage' from the hyper-sensitive and easily fooled."

David K. Li contributed.