CHICAGO - A whirlpool of frigid, dense air known as a ``polar vortex'' descended Monday into much of the U.S., pummeling parts of the country with a dangerous cold that could break decades-old records with wind chill warnings stretching from Montana to Alabama.
For a big chunk of the Midwest, the subzero temperatures were moving in behind another winter wallop: more than a foot of snow and high winds that made traveling treacherous. Officials closed schools in cities including Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee and warned residents to stay indoors and avoid the frigid cold altogether.
The forecast is extreme: 32 below zero in Fargo, N.D.; minus 21 in Madison, Wis.; and 15 below zero in Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Chicago. Wind chills - what it feels like outside when high winds are factored into the temperature - could drop into the minus 50s and 60s.
``It's just a dangerous cold,'' said National Weather Service meteorologist Butch Dye in Missouri.
It hasn't been this cold for almost two decades in many parts of the country. Frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly at 15 to 30 below zero.
Between a heater that barely works and the drafty windows that invite the cold air into his home, Jeffery Davis decided he'd be better off sitting in a downtown Chicago doughnut shop for three hours Monday until it was time to go to work. He threw on two pairs of pants, two t-shirts, ``at least three jackets,'' two hats, a pair of gloves, the ``thickest socks you'd probably ever find'' and boots, and trudged to the train stop in his South Side neighborhood that took him to within a few blocks of the library where he works.
``I never remember it ever being this cold,'' said Davis, 51. ``I'm flabbergasted.''
One after another, people came into the shop, some to buy coffee, others, like Davis, to just sit and wait.
Giovannni Lucero, a 29-year-old painter, said he was prepared for the storm. To keep his pipes from freezing, he'd left the faucet running and opened the kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to let the warm air in his house reach the pipes.
``We stocked up yesterday on groceries because you never know,'' Lucero said.
And he was reminded on the way to work that he'd make the right decision to buy a four-wheel drive truck. ``There were accidents everywhere because of the ice,'' he said.
Roads were treacherous across the region. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard upgraded the city's travel emergency level to ``red,'' making it illegal for anyone to drive except for emergencies or to seek shelter. The city hasn't issued such a travel warning since 1978.
National Weather Service meteorologist Philip Schumacher urged motorists in the Dakotas - where wind chills were as low as the minus 50s - to carry winter survival kits and a charged cellphone in case they became stranded.