Polar vortex 2019: Temperatures plunge to 'historic' lows not seen in decades

Brutal cold blamed for as many as nine deaths across the Midwest, amid warnings of hypothermia and life-threatening conditions.
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By Alex Johnson, David K. Li and Daniel Arkin

A harsh and deadly winter blast gripping the Midwest and parts of the Northeast sent temperatures plunging to record lows Wednesday — creating brutal conditions that led to canceled flights, suspended postal deliveries, closed schools and traffic pileups.

The National Weather Service warned that the deep freeze, already responsible for as many as nine deaths, would hover over the Upper Midwest and the Ohio Valley through Thursday, threatening residents with frostbite and even hypothermia.

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 morning in an incident the university said may be weather-related.
  • A person was killed amid extreme wind chill in Tazewell County, Illinois, on Tuesday, according to state emergency management officials. The exact circumstances were not immediately clear, and the emergency management office did not provide details on 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 told NBC affiliate WEEK of Peoria.
  • 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 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 told NBC Chicago. The snowplow driver was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.
  • 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 the weather conditions.
  • A 9-year-old Nebraska boy died Sunday when the vehicle he was traveling in lost traction on the icy I-80 in Cass County and rolled into a ditch. Five other people were injured, the Iowa State Patrol said.
  • A 59-year-old man was found dead Tuesday in his driveway near the border of Delaware County and Madison County, Indiana. Delaware County Coroner Rick Howell said it appeared the man fell outside his home.
  • An 87-year-old woman was also found dead outside her Delaware County, Indiana, home Sunday. Howell said he is awaiting toxicology reports on her and the man who died Tuesday.

More than 1,500 flight arrivals and departures were canceled at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, according to FlightAware, a Houston-based flight tracking company. Another 330 were scrubbed at the city's other major airport, Midway International.

Amtrak said all trains scheduled to and from Chicago on Wednesday were also canceled.

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A man walks on North Avenue Beach as the sun rises over Lake Michigan in Chicago on Wednesday.Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA

The subzero temperatures seized large parts of the Northeast and the Midwest, where as many as 75 million Americans live. By Wednesday night, 85 percent of the U.S. land area and 230 million Americans will have experienced freezing temperatures, forecasters said.

Chicago's temperature fell to 15 degrees below zero. Fargo, North Dakota, hit minus 31 degrees. Minneapolis reached minus 27 degrees. As of 1 p.m. CT (2 p.m. ET) Wednesday, it was 0 degrees in both Cleveland and Buffalo, New York.

"Historic cold, unprecedented cold, these are all adjectives you could use to describe this," Kathryn Prociv, a meteorologist for NBC News, said.

"These are some of the coldest temperatures an entire generation has ever felt, talking about the millennials," Prociv said. "A lot of these temperatures will be the coldest since about 1994, when a lot of them were just being born."

The U.S. Postal Service said it would suspend delivery services Wednesday in Chicago, Minnesota, western Wisconsin, Iowa and western Illinois. There will also be no mail or package pickups, it said.

"You're talking about frostbite and hypothermia issues very quickly, like in a matter of minutes, maybe seconds," said Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the NWS' Weather Prediction Center.

For emergency responders, such conditions are life-threatening but a part of the job.

When any equipment gets wet, it "freezes to the ground," Rochester fire Capt. Greg Neumann said.

"Even the hose lines get froze up," Neumann told NBC affiliate KTTC. "They grab the snow, so everything is three times heavier than they actually are."

But in Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin complained that people just aren't tough enough. In an interview with WHAS radio of Louisville, Bevin said he wasn't happy that dozens of school districts were canceling classes Wednesday.

"Now we cancel school for cold," Bevin told host Terry Meiners. "I mean, there's no ice going with it or any snow. What happens to America? We're getting soft, Terry. We're getting soft."

Bevin said that he was being "only slightly facetious" and that he had a real concern — "that in America, on this and any number of other fronts, we're sending messages to our young people that if life is hard, you can curl up in the fetal position somewhere in a warm place and just wait 'til it stops being hard. And that just isn't reality."

(You can listen to the entire interview here.)