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US Midwest gripped by deep freeze blamed for several deaths

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A woman walks along Michigan Avenue above the frozen Chicago River in Chicago, Illinois, on Jan 29, 2019.

[CHICAGO] A blast of polar air brought dangerously low temperatures to much of the US Midwest, causing three more deaths on Wednesday (Jan 30), while halting the mail and forcing residents who pride themselves on their winter hardiness to huddle indoors.

Classes were cancelled for Wednesday and Thursday (Jan 31) in many cities, including Chicago, home of the nation's third-largest school system, and police warned of the risk of accidents on icy highways. Michigan said all state offices would remain closed through Thursday.

In a rare move, the US Postal Service appeared to temporarily set aside its credo that "neither snow nor rain ... nor gloom of night" would stop its work as it halted deliveries from parts of the Dakotas through Ohio.

At least eight deaths related to extreme cold weather have been reported since Saturday (Jan 26) in Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, officials and media reports said.

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In Detroit, a 70-year-old man was found dead on Wednesday on a residential street, a Detroit police spokesman said. About 24km south in the community of Ecorse, a former city councilman in his 70s and dressed only in sleepwear was also found dead on Wednesday, Ecorse police said.

A University of Iowa student was found dead outside a building at the campus early on Wednesday, the school said in a statement. The death of Mr Gerald Belz, a pre-med student in his second year at the school, was believed to be weather-related, the statement said.

Streets in Chicago were nearly empty, with few people walking outside in the painfully cold air as temperatures hovered around -28 deg C.

"It's terrible!" Mr Pasquale Cappellano, a 68-year-old waiter, said as he smoked a cigarette while waiting outside for a bus on Chicago's North Side. "I gotta pick up my medication at Walgreens or else I wouldn't be out the door."

In Minneapolis, chilled to -26 deg C, Mr Brian Pierce had ventured out to "embrace the elements" and found himself watching cars slipping on the roads.

"The roads sound really weird, it seems there's a lack of grip," he said. "And my teeth hurt."

HEADING TO EAST COAST

Wind-chill temperatures in parts of the Northern Plains and Great Lakes plunged to as low as -41 deg C in Park Rapids, Minnesota, and -35 deg C in Fargo, North Dakota, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). The frigid winds were headed for the US East Coast later on Wednesday into Thursday.

More than a thousand flights, close to two-thirds of those scheduled, were cancelled on Wednesday into or out of Chicago O'Hare and Chicago Midway international airports, according to the flight tracking site FlightAware.

Amtrak cancelled all trains in and out of Chicago on Wednesday.

At the Morning Joy Farm in Mercer, North Dakota, Ms Annie Carlson said her horses and sheep were doing fine.

"They can go into the barn if they wish," she said. "They're snuggled in, warm and toasty."

Her chickens, ducks and guinea hens were enjoying the 21 deg C climate inside their greenhouse-like hoop house, she said.

Mr Andrew Orrison, a meteorologist with the NWS, said some of the coldest wind chills were recorded in International Falls, Minnesota, at -48 deg C. Even the South Pole in Antarctica was warmer, with an expected low of -31 deg C with wind chill.

Temperatures in Chicago will drop again "quite precipitously" on Wednesday night, Mr Orrison said, potentially breaking the record low of -33 deg C on Jan 21, 1985, the same day as Mr Ronald Reagan's second presidential inauguration.

Banks and stores closed for business. Waste Management Inc, a major trash collection company, said it was cancelling pickups in counties across the Midwest on Wednesday and Thursday.

WARMING CENTRES

The bitter cold was caused by a displacement of the polar vortex, a stream of air that normally spins around the stratosphere over the North Pole, but whose current was disrupted and was now pushing south.

Officials opened warming centres across the Midwest, and in Chicago, police stations were open to anyone seeking refuge from the cold. Five city buses were also deployed to serve as mobile warming centres for homeless people, while city police handed out hats, jackets and blankets.

The Chicago Police Department said it could encourage people to get out of the cold.

"But we will never force someone," police officer Michael Carroll said.

US homes and businesses will likely use record amounts of natural gas for heating on Wednesday, according to energy analysts.

Some residents just to the north and northwest of the Twin Cities in Minnesota were asked by Xcel Energy to dial down their thermostats to 16 deg C because of the strains on its natural gas supply system.

The Michigan Agency for Energy said the state's utility companies had agreed not to shut off gas or electric supplies to delinquent customers for the rest of the week.

REUTERS