A dangerous cold front was expected to bring the Chicago area to a crawl Monday, with a flurry of school closings, flight and train cancellations and calls for the public to avoid temperatures expected to drop to at least 10 below zero.
Powerful, freezing winds aloft in the atmosphere will swoop into the area by Monday morning, pulling air from the Arctic, through Canada and into the city. Temperatures could fall to as low as minus-20 degrees, but the winds will make it feel more like minus-30 to minus-50, according to the National Weather Service.
“Everyday activities may not be feasible,” said Gary Schenkel, executive director of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, at a news conference Sunday to detail how the city planned on handling the unusual Arctic blast. “If you can stay indoors, please do so.”
To accommodate the winter phenomenon, airlines are reducing their schedules as aviation workers vigorously clear runways, said Rosemarie Andolino, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation.
At the city’s two airports, more than 1,500 flights were canceled Sunday, and aviation officials were encouraging Monday travelers to call airlines before arriving while passing out pillows and blankets to those who were stranded.
CTA trains and buses were expected to be operating Monday, transit officials said Sunday. Metra trains were expected to be running Monday as well, but officials warned of possible weather-related delays and slowdowns. Amtrak officials said the agency would curtail service to and from Chicago.
Meanwhile, school cancellations are set to keep hundreds of thousands of Chicago-area children out of classes Monday, the same day many would have returned from winter break.
Chicago Public Schools made its announcement late Sunday, a decision that followed criticism from the Chicago Teachers’ Union about sending kids to school in dangerous conditions.
Classes were also canceled in Highland Park, Downers Grove, Naperville and other suburbs. All Catholic elementary schools in Cook and Lake counties are also scheduled to be closed, the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office of Catholic Schools announced Sunday. Catholic high schools were making their decisions individually because of governance issues, according to a statement from the office.
Many area colleges and universities also canceled classes for Monday, including the seven main City College campuses and Northwestern University.
Keeping the city’s streets clear was proving difficult for Monday morning’s commute as streets and sanitation workers battled strong winds and drifting snow, said Commissioner Charles Williams. He said crews would work overnight to deal with snow that may have blown back onto roads.
Illinois transportation officials had more than 1,700 trucks out Sunday evening to clear state roads, 90 percent of which were covered by ice and snow.
“We’ll still be playing catch-up” on Monday, said Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider of the crews’ efforts in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s going to be very difficult to see those conditions improve over the overnight hours.”
Parts of Interstate Highways 94 and 65 in Indiana and Routes 30 and 38 in Kane County, Illinois were closed Sunday due to the extreme weather.
Back in Chicago, overnight shelters operated by the city’s Department of Family and Support Services stood ready to increase the number of beds they offer, if needed, but officials said they did not expect demand to be overwhelming, said Commissioner Evelyn Diaz.
“We’re not really anticipating that we’re going to run out of space,” Diaz said. “So our message right now is no one will be turned away.”
City and private agencies Sunday canvassed the streets in search of homeless people. By 2:30 p.m., Nicholas Benedetto, director of case management services at the Chicago-based Franciscan Outreach, had yet to find anyone. “That doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
Sean and Theresa Smith, both 40, waited until darkness fell before approaching a warming center at 10 S. Kedzie Ave. in East Garfield Park, where women, men and children lounged inside a large open room inside the community service center.
Normally the couple sleep under a bridge with layers of blankets, said Theresa Smith.
“It’s so cold we’ve got to do something,” said Sean Smith, while his wife rushed inside the lobby area to warm up. “I can’t risk waking up with my wife frozen next to me.”
By around 7:30 p.m., the couple was still looking for a place to stay the night.
This week’s cold snap is expected to be relatively short-lived compared to previous ones in the late 1970s and even a five-night string of subzero temperatures in February 2007 that burst pipes, turned highways into parking lots and led to equipment breakdowns on jet fuel trucks at O’Hare International Airport.
Still, if thermometers remain below zero through Tuesday, as forecast, it will be the first time since February 1996 that the city has been gripped by negative temperatures for at least 48 hours straight.
Temperatures are expected to creep back above zero by Tuesday afternoon, with a possible high around 30 degrees later in the week. Monday’s deep freeze is also expected to break the record for the lowest high temperature on Jan. 6.
For those who will be staying at home, Chicago Fire Department officials reminded residents to keep space heaters at least three feet from anything that might burn, like curtains and bedding, and check carbon monoxide detectors.
“In a building’s normal heating cycle there might be a little bit of an unnoticed carbon monoxide leak,” said spokesman Larry Langford. “But if the furnace is running continuously that means that any carbon monoxide problem could be amplified.”
The city’s fire department also may send additional engines out on typical residential fires in case fire hydrants freeze. Every fall, the department inspects the city’s fire hydrants to ensure that they are working and that any standing water is removed. But if the hydrant is used by others later and improperly shut down, water can remain and freeze the hydrant shut, department officials said.
As an added precaution, the city’s Department of Water Management will also send extra crews out with firefighters to troubleshoot any hydrant issues, said spokesman Tom LaPorte.
As usual in frigid temperatures, LaPorte recommended that people run a small stream of water from one of the faucets in their home to help keep pipes from freezing, recommending that anyone who discovers a frozen pipe call 3-1-1.
The CTA and the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation also plan to use heaters on rail switches to prevent freezing and mixing street salt with beet juice to increase melting effectiveness.
The CTA also plans to check elevators at rail stations every 30 minutes in case the cold weather prevents the lifts from working, said spokeswoman Tammy Chase.
At the same time, local medical professionals warned of the serious threat of hypothermia and frostbite for those venturing outside.
Dr. Martin Fedko, emergency physician at Rush University Medical Center, cautioned that those braving the cold should wear layers, cover their heads, hands and feet and avoid getting wet.
“Frostbite is, essentially, freezing of your tissues,” Fedko said. “There is decreased blood flow to the tissues (in your extremities) because it is so cold and that risks tissue damage.”
Signs of frostbite include numbness and tingling in the extremities. Skin suffering from frostbite will usually look pale, but in more severe cases the tissue will become discolored, eventually blistering and turning black.
Anyone who believes they are suffering from frostbite should seek medical attention, Fedko said.
In the temperatures expected early this week, Fedko added that people can start developing the beginning symptoms of frostbite — known as frostnip — in anywhere from five to 10 minutes.
“People need to be more aware because we are not accustomed to these things and we are not used to this level of cold in this sustained period of time,” Fedko said.”We may take for granted what our bodies can truly tolerate.”
Animals, too, face health consequences when temperatures drop.
Pets are more likely to have respiratory problems because of the cold weather, particularly those that are older, smaller or have underlying health issues.
Tribune reporters Meredith Rodriguez, Rosemary Regina Sobol and Stephanie Baer contributed.Copyright © 2015, RedEye