Flights canceled, offices close amid frigid Midwest weather

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BISMARCK, N.D. | A vicious arctic freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures on Wednesday, sparking widespread closures of schools and businesses, and the canceling of more than 1,600 flights from Chicago’s airports. The cold even prompted the U.S. Postal Service to suspend mail delivery to a wide portion of the region.

Hundreds of public schools and several large universities from North Dakota to Pennsylvania have canceled classes, and residents huddled inside as the National Weather Service forecast dipping temperatures from one of the coldest air masses in years. The bitter cold is the result of a split in the polar vortex that allowed temperatures to drop much farther south than normal.

In Chicago, temperatures were still dropping after plunging early Wednesday to minus 19 degrees (negative 28 Celsius), breaking the day’s previous record low set in 1966, though wind chills in northern Illinois made it feel as cold as negative 57 degrees (negative 49.4 Celsius). A wind chill of minus 25 (negative 32 Celsius) can freeze skin within 15 minutes, according to the National Weather Service.

Snowplows were idled overnight in southwestern Minnesota, where temperatures dropped to negative 29 degrees (negative 34 Celsius). And the temperature in Fargo, North Dakota, was 31 degrees below zero (negative 35 Celsius).

Officials throughout the region were focused on protecting vulnerable people from the cold, including the homeless, seniors and those living in substandard housing. Some buses were turned into mobile warming shelters to help the homeless in Chicago.

About 1,300 of Wednesday’s canceled flights in Chicago were at O’Hare International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest airports. United Airlines spokesman Charlie Hobart said “everything tends to slow down” during severely cold weather, including manpower, fueling and equipment. Calling the temperatures “dangerous,” Hobart said United was bringing in extra workers and providing heated tents for employees.

A popular saying goes: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat …” will stop the mail from being delivered, but extreme cold did so Wednesday. The U.S. Postal Service has suspended mail delivery in parts or all of several Midwest states including North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

Governors in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan declared emergencies as the worst of the cold threatened on Wednesday. In Chicago, major attractions closed because of the bitter cold, including the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Art Institute and the Field Museum.

“These (conditions) are actually a public health risk and you need to treat it appropriately,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday. “They are life-threatening conditions and temperatures.”