Mayor gives update as historic cold envelops Chicago area causing school closures, flight and train service cancellations

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CHICAGO — A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest, forcing widespread closure of schools, offices and prompting the U.S. Postal Service to take the rare step of suspending mail delivery to a wide swath of the region because of the cold.

Many normal activities shut down and residents huddled inside as the National Weather Service forecast plunging 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 plunge much further south than normal.

City officials said this was an all-hands on deck coordinated effort until the area gets through these dangerous temperatures. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and department heads gave a briefing Wednesday evening at OEMC headquarters and urged residents to call 311 if they need access to city services or warming centers.

The advice remains the same: Stay inside if you can and dress appropriately if you must go outside.

The Department of Buildings has taken emergency action Wednesday against six properties to make emergency repairs and get residents relocated because they don’t have adequate heat.

The city also working with churches to beef up the number of shelter beds and warming centers.

“Every city department is coordinating response, if you can't go to the service the service will come to you, we want everyone to come out of this safe,” Emanuel said.

Officials said 271 warming centers are open in city facilities, in addition to five busses on the street and five at O’Hare as mobile warming centers.

“If you're a landlord we encourage you to be proactive, so we don't get to an emergency situation where your tenants don't have heat. It’s your responsibility to have this working,” Jusy Frydman, buildings commissioner, said.

Fire officials are also warning residents not to donate propane tanks to the homeless, because they are a fire hazard.

City officials also want to remind residents to have working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.

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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.

Flight delays and cancelations

More than 1,600 flights have been canceled at Chicago's airports.

About 1,300 of Wednesday's canceled flights were at O'Hare International Airport, one of the nation's busiest airports. The temperature at the airport early Wednesday was negative 23 degrees (negative 30.5 Celsius), but wind chills in northern Illinois made it feel as cold as negative 57 degrees (negative 49.4 Celsius).

United Airlines spokesman Charlie Hobart says "everything tends to slow down" during severely cold weather, including manpower, fueling and equipment. Hobart calls the temperatures "dangerous." He says United is bringing in extra workers to help and has provided heated tents for employees.

Get the latest flight info at flightview.com

Amtrak, Metra Electric and South Shore Line train service canceled 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.

The South Shore Line, which runs into northern Indiana, suspended its commuter rail trips for Wednesday and said it expected to offer limited service on Thursday. Early Wednesday, a test train encountered significant overnight wire problems. For more information visit mysouthshoreline.com

Metra Electric train service has also been suspended until further notice. Metra suggest customers seek alternate transportation at this time.

Power outages

As of 7 a.m. Wednesday, nearly 7000 ComEd customers are without power in the south and southwest suburbs. Also, a report of significant power outages in Jasper and Newton counties (NW Indiana).

Protecting the vulnerable

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 encourage the homeless to come off the streets in Chicago, where the forecast for Wednesday night called for temperatures as low as minus 21 degrees (negative 29 degrees Celsius), with wind chills to minus 40 (negative 40 degrees Celsius).

Major Chicago attractions including the Lincoln Park Zoo, Art Institute and Field Museum weren't opening Wednesday. Governors in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan declared emergencies as the worst of the cold threatened on Wednesday.

"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."

A wind chill of minus 25 (negative 32 degrees Celsius) can freeze skin within 15 minutes, according to the National Weather Service.

At least four deaths were linked to the weather system Tuesday, 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.

A popular saying goes: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat ..." will stop the mail from being delivered. But extreme cold will on Wednesday.

The U.S. Postal Service said it would suspend mail delivery on Wednesday in parts or all of several Midwest states including North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

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.

Easy tips for keeping your family safe in the cold.

FULL LIST: Cook County warming centers

The cold is attributed to a sudden warming far above the North Pole. A blast of warm air from misplaced Moroccan heat last month made the normally super chilly air temperatures above the North Pole rapidly increase. That split the polar vortex into pieces, which then started to wander, said Judah Cohen, a winter storm expert for Atmospheric Environmental Research.

One of those polar vortex pieces is responsible for the subzero temperatures across the Midwest this week.

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