MADISON, Wis. – Homeless people scrambled to find shelter, schools shut down and plumbers wrestled with frozen pipes Tuesday as the upper Midwest endured a third straight day of bitter cold temperatures.
Waves of frigid Arctic air began sweeping south from Canada on Saturday night, locking the Midwest into a deep freeze that has left a section of the country well-acquainted with winter’s pains reeling. Authorities suspect exposure has played a role in at least three deaths so far.
“I am wearing a snuggie under a top and another jacket over that,” said Faye Whitbeck, president of the chamber of commerce in International Falls, Minn., a town near the Canadian border where the temperature was minus 30 on Tuesday morning. The anticipated high was a balmy 8 below. “I pulled out a coat that went right to my ankles this morning and I wore two scarves.”
The coldest location in the lower 48 states Monday was Embarrass, Minn., at 36 below. On Sunday it was Babbitt, Minn., at 29 below, according to the National Weather Service.
Ariana Laffey, a 30-year-old homeless woman, kept warm with a blanket, three pairs of pants and six shirts as she sat on a milk crate begging near Chicago’s Willis Tower on Tuesday morning. She said she and her husband spent the night under a bridge, bundled up under a half-dozen blankets.
“We’re just trying to make enough to get a warm room to sleep in tonight,” Laffey said.
But in Sioux Falls, S.D., where winter temperatures are normally well below freezing, some homeless shelters had open beds. Shelters suspect people who needed their help were probably already getting temperatures are so low there in winter. The first cold snap of the season was in early December. Overnight temperatures dropped to 9 below with the wind chill.
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, residents woke to a wind chill that made it feel like 35 below. The temperature in Madison, Wis., was a whopping 1 above just shy of midday Tuesday. Chicago was the hot spot – the mercury climbed to 6 just before noon.
The temperature in Detroit was a toasty 7 degrees with a 10 below wind chill around midday. City officials said they planned to extended hours at its two warming centers. A warming center run by St. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church downtown which usually sees 50 to 60 people on a typical winter day had taken in about 90 people Tuesday morning.
Police in Milwaukee, where the temperature was just 2 degrees at noon, checked under freeway overpasses to find the homeless and urge them to find a shelter. The United Way of Greater Milwaukee has donated $50,000 to two homeless shelters so they can open overflow centers.
“We’re incredibly relieved,” said Donna Rongholt-Migan, executive director of the Cathedral Center, a shelter that received $25,000. “I was walking my dog last night and I couldn’t feel my legs just after walking around the block.”
Schools across the region either started late or didn’t open at all. Districts in Duluth, Minn., and Ashland, Bayfield, Hurly, Washburn and Superior in far northern Wisconsin closed amid warnings that the wicked wind chills could freeze exposed flesh within a minute.
“It’s brutal,” Courtney Thrall, a 21-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison student, said as she waited for her bus, her fur-trimmed parka hood pulled over her head.
On Sunday, a 70-year-old man was found frozen in his unheated home in Des Plaines, Ill.
Wisconsin authorities, meanwhile, were investigating whether the cold was a factor in the deaths of a 38-year-old man found outside his Green Bay home Monday morning and a 77-year-old Illinois woman found dead near her car in southwestern Wisconsin on Saturday night.
The plunging temperatures also made life plenty miserable for plumbers.
Workers in Madison had to repair at least four water main breaks since Sunday afternoon. Jim Gilchrist, a third-generation plumber in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, said he received about five or six calls Tuesday from people with frozen water pipes in their homes. Few pipes had actually burst – yet.
“We’ll probably get those calls later, as pipes begin thawing” and develop a split, said Gilchrist. “Today they just know they don’t have water; tomorrow they will have water spraying.”
Associated Press writers Doug Glass in Minneapolis, Don Babwin and Tammy Weber in Chicago, Jeff Karoub in Detroit and Dirk Lammers in Sioux Falls, S.D., contributed to this story.