Thu. 9:13 a.m.: Deep freeze expected to ease, but disruptions persist

A sign shows the current outdoor temperature Wednesday in Glenview, Ill. A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures on Wednesday, triggering widespread closures of schools and businesses, and prompting the U.S. Postal Service to take the rare step of suspending mail delivery to a wide swath of the region. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

CHICAGO (AP) — The painfully cold weather system that put much of the Midwest into a historic deep freeze was expected to ease today, though temperatures could still tumble to record lows in some places before the region begins to thaw out.

Disruptions caused by the cold will persist, too, including power outages and canceled flights and trains. Crews in Detroit will need days to repair water mains that burst Wednesday, and other pipes can still burst in persistent subzero temperatures.

In Trumbull County, schools closed for a second day today. The low recorded Wednesday at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport was minus 5 degrees, short of the record low of minus 8 for Jan. 30 set in 1965.

The National Weather Service predicts a high today of 6 in Warren. However, shortly before 9 a.m., the airport temperature was minus 3, with a wind chill factor of minus 21 degrees.

Warren’s record low for Jan. 31 is minus 9 in 1948. The record high was 61 degrees, set in 2002.

Before the worst of the cold begins to lift, the National Weather Service said Chicago could hit lows early this morning that break the city’s record of minus 27 set on Jan. 20, 1985. Some nearby isolated areas could see temperatures as low as minus 40. That would break the Illinois record of minus 36, set in Congerville on Jan. 5, 1999.

Two of Wisconsin’s largest school districts canceled classes again this morning, when morning temperatures hovered around negative 20 degrees. In Minnesota, where wind chill readings could reach negative 55 degrees, several large school districts also called off classes.

The extreme cold has also sent dozens of people to hospitals in Minnesota. Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis says it has treated 22 patients for frostbite since Friday, including 13 admitted to the hospital.

But in North Dakota, students in Fargo and other nearby cities are heading back to school. Temperatures in the region dropped to minus 25 degrees this morning morning but forecasters are predicting a high of minus 2 degrees.

It’s a bit warmer in South Dakota, where the National Weather Service says the high temperature in Sioux Falls on today is expected to be 12 degrees.

In Chicago, as temperatures bounce back into the single digits today and into the comparative balmy 20s by Friday, more people were expected to return to work in the nation’s third-largest city, which resembled a ghost town after most offices told employees to stay home.

The blast of polar air that enveloped much of the Midwest on Wednesday closed schools and businesses and strained infrastructure with some of the lowest temperatures in a generation. The deep freeze snapped rail lines, canceled hundreds of flights and strained utilities.

Chicago dropped to a low of around minus 23, slightly above the city’s lowest-ever reading of minus 27 from January 1985. Milwaukee had similar conditions. Minneapolis recorded minus 27. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, saw minus 25.

Wind chills reportedly made it feel like minus 50 or worse. Trains and buses in Chicago operated with few passengers. The hardiest commuters ventured out only after covering nearly every square inch of flesh against the extreme chill, which froze ice crystals on eyelashes and eyebrows in minutes.

The Postal Service took the rare step of suspending mail delivery in many places, and in southeastern Minnesota, even the snowplows were idled by the weather.

The bitter cold was the result of a split in the polar vortex, a mass of cold air that normally stays bottled up in the Arctic. The split allowed the air to spill much farther south than usual. In fact, Chicago was colder than the Canadian village of Alert, one of the world’s most northerly inhabited places. Alert, which is 500 miles from the North Pole, reported a temperature that was a couple of degrees higher.

Officials in dozens of cities focused on protecting vulnerable people from the cold, including the homeless, seniors and those living in substandard housing.

At least eight deaths were linked to the system, including an elderly Illinois man who was found several hours after he fell trying to get into his home and a University of Iowa student found behind an academic hall several hours before dawn. Elsewhere, a man was struck by a snowplow in the Chicago area, a young couple’s SUV struck another on a snowy road in northern Indiana and a Milwaukee man froze to death in a garage, authorities said.

Aside from the safety risks and the physical discomfort, the system’s icy grip also took a heavy toll on infrastructure, halting transportation, knocking out electricity and interrupting water service.

Amtrak canceled scores of trains to and from Chicago, one of the nation’s busiest rail hubs. Several families who intended to leave for Pennsylvania stood in ticket lines at Chicago’s Union Station only to be told all trains were canceled until Friday.

“Had I known we’d be stranded here, we would have stayed in Mexico longer — where it was warmer,” said Anna Ebersol, who was traveling with her two sons.

Ten diesel-train lines in the Metra commuter network kept running, unlike the electric lines, but crews had to heat vital switches with gas flames and watched for rails that were cracked or broken. When steel rails break or even crack, trains are automatically halted until they are diverted or the section of rail is repaired, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis explained.

A track in the Minneapolis light-rail system also cracked, forcing trains to share the remaining track for a few hours.

In Detroit, more than two dozen water mains froze. Customers were connected to other mains to keep water service from being interrupted, Detroit Water and Sewerage spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said.

Most mains were installed from the early 1900s to the 1950s. They are 5 to 6 feet underground and beneath the frost line, but that matters little when temperatures drop so dramatically, Peckinpaugh said.

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