Excruciatingly cold blast plunges early Thursday temps into deep freeze

Steve Kiggins and Aamer Madhani and John Bacon

CHICAGO – The excruciatingly cold blast of winter weather that plunged a wide swath of the nation into a deep freeze was showing little signs of easing Thursday.

Near-record temperatures were being recorded in dozens of cities and towns. The Midwestern metropolises of Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit were among areas feeling the brunt of the polar vortex-powered weather.

Thousands of flights were canceled or delayed again Thursday, including more than 1,400 in and out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

The demand for power to warm homes and businesses was becoming a concern. Detroit was a comparatively minus 12 degrees at 7 a.m. ET, with a hefty wind chill of 31 below. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pleaded for conservation on behalf of Consumers Energy, a utility powering about two-thirds of the state.

"Due to this extremely cold weather and this extremely high demand for natural gas, and a facility incident, Consumers Energy has asked that everyone in the Lower Peninsula turn our thermostats down to 65 degrees or less so that we can get through this storm with minimal harm," she said.

Consumers Energy also requested General Motors suspend operations at multiple manufacturing sites across the state.

In Minnesota, Minneapolis, was at minus 23, although the winds had ebbed. International Falls reached minus 44. In Illinois, Moline, reached minus 29, an all-time record for the city, the National Weather Service said. It was minus 19 in Chicago at 6 a.m. CT, with a wind chill of 36 degrees below zero.

The weather was forecast to improve in the coming days, soaring into the 40s over the weekend. While the region is past the worst of the cold, city officials urged residents to remain cautious Thursday and avoid venturing outdoors if possible. Schools throughout Chicagoland were closed for a second day Thursday.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel warned that Chicago would not tolerate landlords who were not properly heating their buildings. With county courts closed due to the weather, Emanuel directed the city buildings commissioner to use police powers to bring in repair crews to make emergency repairs at several privately-owned apartment buildings. 

“We are not waiting 48 hours for the courts to reopen to hold landlords accountable,” Emanuel said.

At the Cook County Jail, which was holding almost 5,800 men and women, the sheriff made two empty tiers of the jail available for discharged detainees to stay if they had no place warm to go. The jail also provided warm clothes to discharged detainees before releasing them.

Multi-vehicle pileups snarled snowy roadways in New York and Pennsylvania, major airlines scrapped thousands of flights in the region and Amtrak canceled its entire line of service to and from Chicago, one of its primary hubs.

The cold snap was blamed for at least eight deaths – including a young couple whose SUV struck another vehicle in Indiana and a man found frozen to death in a garage in Wisconsin – and impacted travel on roadways, through the air and on the rails.

Wind chill warnings will remain in effect through Thursday across the Upper Midwest and into the Ohio Valley, according to the National Weather Service. The governors of Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin have all declared emergencies. 

With wind chill readings dangerously low – Accuweather recorded minus 77 at Thief River Falls, Minnesota, on Tuesday night – NWS Meteorologist Brian Hurley warned of frostbite within five to 10 minutes of exposure, as well as hypothermia with prolonged exposure.

“The good news is, it’s going to really lose quite a bit of the grip over the next few days,” Hurley told USA TODAY.

Contributing: Kristin Lam, USA TODAY; Aleanna Siacon, Detroit Free Press; The Associated Press.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Excruciatingly cold blast plunges early Thursday temps into deep freeze