“Polar vortex” moves east, blasting Arctic air, threatening frostbite

CHICAGO - The eastern half of the U.S. and Canada shivered Monday 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 canceled Sunday at airports throughout the Midwest. More than 400 flights were cancelled at Chicago's airports Monday. CBS Chicago station WBBM reports a temperature of 16 below zero was recorded on Monday, a full 11 degrees off the record set on Jan. 10, 1985.

JetBlue announced Monday that operations at Boston, Newark, JFK and LaGuardia airports will be stopped entirely at 5 p.m. in an effort to catch up with dozens of weather-related delays and cancellations. Operations will begin to ramp up again at 10 a.m. Tuesday and the airline expects to be fully operational by 3 p.m. Tuesday.

American Airlines put out a statement late Monday saying it "will have minimal operations today in Chicago and in other cities in the Midwest and Northeast. We have already canceled more than 900 flights today (mainline and regional), with more to come."

"It's just a dangerous cold," said National Weather Service meteorologist Butch Dye.

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Commuters make a sub-zero trek to offices in the Loop on January 6, 2014, in Chicago, Illinois.  
Scott Olson/Getty Images
 The forecast is extreme: 32 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in North Dakota, and 15 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 50s and 60s Fahrenheit.

In New York City, the temperature was expected to drop sharply from about 52 degrees to about 10 degrees overnight as the arctic air moved in.

In Newfoundland, about 5,000 customers remained without power because of rolling blackouts in recent days, but Premier Kathy Dunderdale said it wasn't a crisis and government services were still operating.

It hasn't been this cold for almost two decades in many parts of the region. 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 Monday 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.

 

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