Chicago residents face another bitterly cold day Tuesday, as the region continues to grapple with a deadly arctic freeze that has closed most area schools for the second consecutive day and wreaked havoc on the region’s mass transit system.
Though the high temperature could climb just above zero, state officials were urging motorists to stay off the roads until at least Tuesday afternoon as the bitter cold has made it nearly impossible to clear away ice and strong winds form dangerous snow drifts.
“Do not travel,” Illinois State Police Major Joseph Perez said. “The temperatures are going to be so cold that the salt mixtures will not work.”
Most people heeded warnings to stay put Monday, thanks in large part to school closings and benevolent bosses who encouraged workers to telecommute from home. Those who ventured out, however, endured slick roads, shuttered businesses and major mass transit delays.
As the day wore on, Metra did little to restore confidence in its service as it abruptly canceled more than two dozen evening trains. Late Monday, the rail service said to expect even more cancellations Tuesday morning, on the BNSF line.
“I’m thankful a lot of people don’t have to be out here,” Chicago resident Russell Yost, 23, who wore two pairs of pants, two sweaters and two jackets said. “I’ll be happy to get in a hot bath later tonight.”
Despite the messy conditions, no serious injuries were reported on the roadways, officials said. However, at least four people with pre-existing heart conditions died while shoveling snow. No cold-related deaths were reported, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Temperatures were expected to creep above zero to possibly 6 degrees Tuesday, with wind chills between minus 30 and minus 40 in the morning. The National Weather Service also predicts possible flurries and wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour until late afternoon.
The forecast, however, seemed almost balmy compared to the record-breaking weather endured Monday. Chicago hit a record low for the date, as temperatures plummeted to minus 16 at O'Hare International Airport around 8 a.m. The previous record was minus 14 set in 1988.
The history-making temperatures – which felt like minus 40 with the wind chill – are part of a national weather pattern that sent more than two dozen states into a deep freeze. Known as a polar vortex, the hurricane-like system carried a mass of frigid air across the Midwest and brought typically winter-proof Chicago to its knees.
The weather forced homeless shelters to extend their hours and transformed government buildings into warming centers where people could escape the cold. La Grange Park Village Hall employees, for example, made several trips to McDonald’s during the day to provide meals for the dozen people using the building to stay warm.
At Elgin’s Wayside Center day shelter, Robin Thornton spent the day crocheting a brown and beige hat that she planned to give to a young man who didn’t have one. Until the cold descended Saturday night, Thornton had been living in her car and scraping frost off the inside of its windows.
“I’m not freezing my butt off anymore, worrying about my car not starting,” Thornton said. “I don’t like that my close friends are still out there in the elements sleeping in tents. You’re at the mercy of the weather.”
State troopers helped rescue more than 900 motorists who became stuck on treacherous roads Monday, including nearly 400 cars that were stranded for several hours after several semi-trucks flipped near downstate Effingham.
The Southern Illinois University men’s basketball got caught in a snowstorm on Interstate 57 Sunday, and players were forced to spend the night in a church while they waited for the roads to clear.
Gov. Pat Quinn has declared the state a disaster area in order to mobilize members of the Illinois National Guard to help with storm response. That included the operation of several large military vehicles called “wreckers” that are normally used on the battlefield to tow tanks, but in this case are being used to help clear highways of overturned trucks.
“The weather’s horrible,” said Elgin resident Lisette Alonso, 24, who had a treacherous drive to her job in Aurora. “The roads weren’t that clear, so sometimes you had to guess where the lane was.”
Northern Indiana also was virtually closed to travel with Interstate 94 shuttered in both directions from the Illinois state line to Michigan City, while Interstate 65 shut down in both directions between Gary and Lafayette. Indiana state police told residents to stay home as conditions were hazardous on almost every major road in the region.
But drivers weren’t the only one facing hardships. Public transportation users dealt with significant delays and cancellations during the morning and afternoon commutes.
Nine of Metra’s 10 rail lines were experiencing delays between 15 and 90 minutes, while the South Shore Indiana Commuter Rail system was suspended entirely. The commuter rail system blamed the problems on switches and signals it says are vulnerable to extreme temperatures and moisture because they rely on electronic circuitry.
After wrestling with train delays on his morning commute from St. Charles, Michael Gudyka had barely settled in at his government job when he was told that the State of Illinois had decided to shut down non-essential offices for the day. He planned to take the 10:40 a.m. train home, but it was canceled.
He hoped to catch the 11:40 a.m. train. But, then again, so did a lot of other frustrated passengers at the Ogilvie Transportation Center.
“It's a little frustrating to go through all of this for only an hour at work,” he said. “Sometimes you wonder if the trains could be better prepared if the weather was telegraphed like it was. We really saw it coming.”
The CTA also had its share of problems, though they were mostly cleared up before noon. The agency temporarily suspended Purple Line and Purple Line Express service between Evanston and Chicago, and authorities reported “major delays” throughout the early morning on almost all its lines, all due to the weather.
Many hearty Chicago residents, however, greeted the cold weather as an unwanted, but not wholly unexpected guest.
Claude Henry, a 72-year-old maintenance worker, was among those willing to brave the cold. Determined to get to his job in Joliet, he stopped first to grab breakfast at a South Side McDonald’s.
“I’ve lived here so long, no cold can bother me,” he said, looking around the near-empty restaurant. “You can’t go out there naked. You’ve got to put some clothes on for sure.”
Wheaton resident Tony Laud, 34, didn’t have to go into work, but after a few days of being stuck inside his home, he decided to see if his car would start. Nearly a foot of snow covered his vehicle, but Laud took it in stride. “I grew up here, so I’m used to this,” he said.
Attorney Jennifer Sender even found a silver lining to the icy clouds hovering over the city.
She could have worked from home Monday. She didn't.
She also could have left the office early when it closed at 2:30 p.m. She didn’t do that either.
As the brutal cold extended her children’s winter break from school, Sender needed some time away from her four boys, ages 7 to 13. So she went to the office.
“We got an email thanking the people who did show up for making the special effort and treating everyone to lunch,” Sender said. “I felt a little bad that I was accepting a free lunch because I really wanted to get away from my kids anyway.
“I do love my kids, don't get me wrong,” she added.
But after more than two weeks off from school, “it has been too much together time for them,” she said. “They have turned into animals,” she said. At the office, she said, it's quiet. The boys’ father stayed home with them Monday.
“I get treated with respect here,” she said. “No one is asking me to pull their finger.”
When Sender got a message saying the office would close early, she said she wasn't going to listen.
“I am like, ‘Fine. Close away. I am not going home.’ ”
Tribune reporters Robert McCoppin, Stephanie K. Baer, Monique Garcia, Wes Venteicher, Peter Nickeas, Rosemary Regina Sobol, Carlos Sadovi, Matthew Walberg and Stacy St. Clair contributed. Freelance writer Krystyna Slivinski also contributed.
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