By Gina Cherelus
(Reuters) – A blast of arctic-chilled air from the polar vortex brought dangerous, record-setting cold to a wide swath of the eastern United States on Tuesday, stretching from the Dakotas through Maine, with snow expected as far south as Alabama and Georgia.
Cities in the Midwest opened warming shelters as temperatures plummeted well below zero degrees Fahrenheit (minus 17.8 degrees Celsius). Regional governments closed hundreds of schools and airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights, including many to Atlanta days before the National Football League’s Super Bowl.
The Midwest will be the hardest-hit area, with a life-threatening wind chill bringing temperatures down as low as minus 50F (minus 46C) in the Chicago area and northern Illinois by Tuesday evening, the National Weather Service reported.
“This storm poses a serious threat to the well-being of people around the state, and we will use every tool at our disposal to keep our residents safe,” said Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker in a statement on Tuesday.
As much as two feet (60 cm) of snow was forecast in Wisconsin, and six inches (15 cm) in Illinois.
“Listen to the people in your area … We’re taking about what could be a very dangerous situation, especially for those traveling,” NWS forecaster Jim Hayes warned on Tuesday.
He said frostbite was possible within 10 minutes in the intense cold, which was forecast to linger for days.
The brutal chill was caused by the polar vortex, a mass of freezing air that normally spins around the North Pole, but has made its way south into the United States.
Officials in Chicago, which has the nation’s third-largest school system, said classes would be canceled for all 360,000 students on Wednesday due to the severe weather.
The freezing temperatures may have killed a Rochester, Minnesota, man who was found dead outside his home on Sunday, according to a reports by WCCO, a local CBS affiliate. Rochester police officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Parts of north and central Georgia may see about 2 inches (5 cm) or more of snow in the coming days, along with freezing rain and ice-slicked highways. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp shut government offices in 35 counties on Tuesday, and schools across swaths of the state were also closed.
Half of the flights out of Chicago’s Midway International Airport were canceled on Tuesday, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.
Snow was expected through Wednesday from the Great Lakes region into New England.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Gina Cherelus in New York, Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)