Life-threatening cold heads toward Chicago; many schools, businesses to close Wednesday

NOTE: Chicago Public Schools closed for 2 days due to weather

CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the double-digit subzero temperatures forecast for the city are life threatening and "not to be taken lightly."

Emanuel spoke Tuesday morning at a warming center, telling Chicagoans that the frigid weather expected through Thursday is a "public health risk." The National Weather Service (NWS) says wind chills could dip to 46 below zero in Chicago. A wind chill of minus 25 (negative 32 degrees Celsius) can freeze skin within 15 minutes, according to the NWS.

Subzero temperatures will begin Tuesday but Wednesday is expected to be the worst. Wind chills in northern Illinois could fall to negative 55 degrees (negative 48 degrees Celsius). The high temperature forecast at O'Hare on Wednesday is negative 14 degrees (negative 25 degrees Celsius), which would break a record set on Jan. 18, 1994.

At least four deaths were linked to the weather system, including a man struck and killed by a snow plow in the Chicago area, a young couple whose SUV struck another on a snowy road in northern Indiana and a Milwaukee man found frozen to death in a garage.

Major Chicago attractions, like the Lincoln Park Zoo, Art Institute of Chicago and Field Museum, will be closed Wednesday.

School Closures

All Chicago Public Schools will be closed Wednesday and Thursday due to the impending freezing temps. Several other schools across the Chicago area, and the following universities, are also planning to close:

  • Northwestern University: closed 8 p.m. Tuesday through 12 p.m. Thursday
  • DePaul University: closed 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Wednesday
  • University of Chicago: closed Wednesday
  • Loyola University: closed 5 p.m. Tuesday through 12 p.m. Thursday
  • Illinois State University, Normal:  closed 11 p.m. Tuesday through 9:30 a.m. Thursday
  • Northern Illinois University: closed from 10 p.m. Tuesday until 10 p.m. Wednesday. Satellite campuses in Naperville, Rockford, Hoffman Estates and Oregon, Ill., will be open and operating on normal schedules.

Check our up-to-date list of local school closings here.

Protecting the vulnerable

Homeless shelters are preparing to help the most vulnerable survive the onslaught of cold.

Chicago city officials said they have added 500 shelter beds and have reached out to religious leaders, asking them to call and check on senior citizens.

"These are actually a public health risk and you need to treat it appropriately and with that effort," Mayor Emanuel said Tuesday. "They are life-threatening conditions and temperatures."

Emanuel said Chicago was turning five buses into makeshift warming centers moving around the city, some with nurses aboard, to encourage the homeless to come in from the cold.

"We're bringing the warming shelters to them, so they can stay near all of their stuff and still warm up," said Cristina Villarreal, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Family and Support Services.

Emanuel urged residents to check on their neighbors and take safety precautions. He said city agencies are making sure homeless people are in shelters or offered space in warming buses.

Easy tips for keeping your family safe in the cold.

FULL LIST: Cook County warming centers

Polar Vortex

The unusually frigid weather is attributed to a sudden warming way above the North Pole. A sudden blast of warm air from misplaced Moroccan heat last month made the normally super chilly air temperatures 20 miles (32 kilometers) above the North Pole rapidly rise about 125 degrees (70 degrees Celsius).

That split the polar vortex into pieces, which then started to wander, according to Judah Cohen, a winter storm expert for Atmospheric Environmental Research, a commercial firm outside Boston. One of those polar vortex pieces is responsible for the subzero temperatures across the Midwest this week.

On Monday, Chicago-area commuters woke up to heavy snowfall, with more than 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) already on the ground.

WATCH: Freezing temps to impact travel

Amtrak cancels trains to and from Chicago Wednesday

Amtrak has canceled all trains to and from Chicago on Wednesday. Amtrak said that includes short-distance corridor trains and long-distance overnight trains. Short-distance trains are also canceled Thursday, and most long-distance services to or from Chicago are also not expected on Jan. 31.

The only exception is trains that originated on or before Tuesday, Jan. 29 — they'll complete their trips to or from Chicago.

Amtrak said it regrets the inconvenience, and will work to accommodate passengers with reservations.

For more information visit Amtrak.com.

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