Dangerously Low Wind Chills Pummel Much Of U.S.

"Historic" — that's one of the terms being used to describe the brutally cold temperatures across the Midwest and other parts of the country. Some temperatures are the lowest recorded in two decades, many in the single digits or below zero with wind chills predicted as low as minus 50.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour in a deep freeze. A large swath of the country is seeing record or near record low temperatures with frigid winds making matters even worse, and weather officials say don't look for it to let up tomorrow. The reason: a phenomenon called the polar vortex. We'll have more on that in just a few minutes. But first, NPR's Cheryl Corley caught up with a few hearty Midwesterners who, despite considerable winter experience, were still shocked by just how cold it was today.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Clearing snow is a normal rite of passage in the winter, but Chicagoan Mike Lyman(ph) says these temperatures are like a bad joke. So how cold is it here? Don't even talk numbers, he says. It's just...

MIKE LYMAN: Brutal. I mean it's as cold as I remember it. I've lived here for 20 years. So yeah, wouldn't you say?

CORLEY: Absolutely, if you compare the temperature in Chicago, minus 10 without the wind chill, in the morning to Anchorage, Alaska today at a balmy 32. Just down the street, the wheels were spinning as Lenny Mills(ph) tried to move his medicar van off a patch of ice.

LENNY MILLS: We've got to get these people to the doctors and the hospitals and everything like that.

CORLEY: It's going to be tough doing that today?

MILLS: Oh, we're going to just pray.

CORLEY: And that's just what a lot of people may be thinking since it hasn't been this cold in some areas for nearly two decades. Jim Keeney with the National Weather Service says these are extreme temperatures.

JIM KEENEY: So we're 20, 30 degrees below normal.

CORLEY: Brutally cold, but not necessarily record-breaking, says Keeney, at least not yet.

KEENEY: But there's a lot of wind associated with this system, so our wind chill values are quite low. Across the northern tier of the country, we're pushing 50 to 60 below zero wind chill values.

CORLEY: And some of the temps so far, 32 below in Fargo, North Dakota, minus 21 in Madison, Wisconsin, more than 15 below in Minneapolis, and so cold in Chicago that the city revisited a decision to keep the schools open today and shut them down instead. School spokesman Joel Hood says the school district knew it was going to be cold and windy...

JOEL HOOD: What we hadn't yet really factored in was how much snow the city was going to get early and throughout the day on Sunday, and that sort of just complicated things.

CORLEY: Yesterday, Minnesota's governor cancelled school for the whole state and now says he'll leave it up to local school districts to decide when students should go back to school. All throughout the region, the roads have been like an ice rink - snowy, icy, often treacherous. For the first time in more than three decades, Indianapolis issued a condition red, which meant no one on the roads except utility workers and emergency workers.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard says he lifted that edict, but he still wants people to stay inside if they can.

MAYOR GREG BALLARD: Because the wind chills around here are still going to be around minus 30 to minus 40. We're still going to ask some businesses to either not open tomorrow or limit it to volunteer workers, and also we're asking schools to stay closed again because we don't want kids out there waiting on bus stops.

CORLEY: The freezing temperatures have even affected the South. In Florida, it's expected to dip into the 30s in some areas. In Northern Georgia, the plunge began with temperatures in the 20s earlier today. The National Weather Service says the end to the deep freeze will begin in most areas by Thursday. Out walking her dog near Chicago's lake front, Monique Clay(ph) says she can't wait.

MONIQUE CLAY: I know this is still winter so - but we can get down to maybe 30. I can be okay with that.

CORLEY: So she'd be happy with 30, just like it is in Alaska. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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