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‘Polar vortex’ grips North America

Chicago, Jan. 6 (AP): The eastern half of the US shivered today as a dangerously cold whirlpool of dense air known as a “polar vortex” threatened to break decades-old records and freeze exposed skin within minutes.

The bitter weather comes after a heavy snowstorm hit much of the region last week. Officials closed schools in Chicago and other Midwest cities and warned residents to stay indoors.

More than 1,000 flights were cancelled yesterday at airports throughout the Midwest. “It’s just a dangerous cold,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Butch Dye.

The forecast is extreme: minus 35 degrees Celsius below zero in North Dakota, and 26 below zero in Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Chicago. Wind chills — what it feels like when high winds are factored into the temperature — could drop into the minus 45 to 51 degrees Celsius.

In New York City, the temperature was expected to drop sharply from about 11.11 Celsius to about minus 12 degrees Celsius overnight as the arctic air moved in.

It hasn’t been this cold for almost two decades in many parts of the country. Frostbite and hypothermia can set in within minutes.

“I have seen frostbite occur through clothing,” said Douglas Brunette, an emergency room doctor in Minneapolis. “It’s not enough just to be covered. You need clothes made for the elements. You need to repel the wind.”

The Indianapolis mayor upgraded the city’s travel emergency level to “red”, making it illegal for anyone to drive except for emergencies or seeking shelter. The last time the city issued such a travel warning was 1978. Elnur Toktombetov, a Chicago taxi driver, said that an hour into his shift, his Toyota’s windows were still coated with ice on the inside

Many cities came to a virtual standstill. School was called off today for the state of Minnesota. Government offices and courts in several states closed.

Southern states were bracing for possible record cold temperatures, too. With two freezing nights ahead, Louisiana citrus farmers could lose any fruit they cannot pick in time.

National Football League fans braved the Wisconsin weather to see the San Francisco 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers 23-20 on a last-second field goal by kicker Phil Dawson.

Jacquie Tucker Braun, 44, was undaunted by a forecast for temperatures minus 17.8 degrees Celsius. “It’s going to be a challenge to stay warm, but we’re up to it,” said Braun, who plans to bring her 14-year-old son Gryphon to the game.

She is bundling up for the game, wearing four layers on top and three layers on the bottom, along with two pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves. “Being a Packers fan is in your blood, hereditary even.”

Officials at the Packers’ Lambeau Field had promised fans two free hot cocoa or coffee drinks, sports network ESPN reported.

In Minnesota, hundreds of residents were evacuated from an apartment building in Rogers yesterday morning when a backup propane heating system in use because of the extreme cold exploded, police said.

The force of the blast knocked some residents out of bed and others off their feet but caused no serious injuries, said Rogers Police Chief Jeff Beahen.

The temperature was about minus 23 degrees Celsius when the explosion occurred at 8:40am local time, Beahen said. The blast was followed by additional explosions that continued for half an hour until a fuel valve was turned off, he added. The cause of the incident is under investigation, Beahen said, and most residents have been allowed back into their homes.

Between 15-30cm of snow was predicted from Chicago to Detroit, AccuWeather said, while icy sleet and rain was forecast for much of the Northeast, where a brief thaw was forecast before intense cold returned late today.

More than 7,300 flights were delayed and 3,514 were cancelled in the US yesterday, according to Flightaware.com, a website that tracks air travel.

 
 
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