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Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Midwest braces for frigid cold, high winds  

Arctic temperatures and strong winds are set to hit the Great Lakes region Thursday afternoon, only a day after the start of winter.

CHICAGO (CN) — Residents of the Great Lakes states prepared for arctic conditions Thursday, as a violent winter storm system moved into the region.

By 11 a.m., the National Weather Service had already issued blizzard warnings for parts of northwest Indiana and all of western Michigan. The entirety of Illinois and Wisconsin, alongside much of Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas, were similarly under winter storm warnings.

A Thursday morning forecast from the NWS in Chicago predicted the storm would continue through Saturday morning, bringing wind gusts over 40 mph, several inches of snow and wind chill temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We'll see the worst of it early to mid-afternoon [on Thursday]," NWS meteorologist Kevin Doom said in an interview. "The snow will start to subside overnight."

The most dangerous aspect of the storm, Doom added, is the wind. Even after snowfall begins to abate, the powerful wind gusts will limit visibility and push temperatures lower, making any travel outside a dangerous proposition.

"The freshly laid snow combined with wind gusts over 45 miles per hour is going to make a lot of blowing snow," Doom said. "Some bad white-out conditions."

The northwestern plains states were especially vulnerable, Doom said, given their flat geography and distance from any body of water that could help regulate local temperatures. But even in warmer regions, much of the country is likely to be impacted by the storm system. It is the result of a powerful jet stream moving across North America, pulling cold arctic air far south. Even states along the Gulf Coast face hard freeze and wind chill warnings through Friday.

"This is a very large storm system. It's affecting roughly two-thirds of the continental U.S.," Doom said.

In Chicago, the city rushed alongside Cook County to mobilize street plow crews, while schools canceled extracurricular activities and local commuter train lines modified their regular schedules.

Airlines likewise scrambled to account for the inclement weather. Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports reported over 750 canceled flights between them as of noon on Thursday, with some 350 more flights delayed. By 1 p.m. Central time, over 4,750 flights had been canceled across the country.

“First and foremost, if you don’t have to travel during this storm, please don’t,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said during a press conference on Wednesday. “I recognize that many people have last-minute shopping to do... but the easiest way to avoid the dangers of the storm is to stay home if you possibly can.”

For those with no home to go to, the situation is especially dangerous. In preparation for the storm, Chicago's Department of Family & Support Services announced it was setting up six public warming centers throughout the city's lower-income South and West sides. The department also encouraged those unable to reach the warming centers to take refuge in the city's public libraries, or to contact the public service line to be connected with a nearby shelter.

Nevertheless, advocates for the city's unhoused people warned that those without proper shelter would likely face an increased likelihood of injury, illness and death as the storm progressed.

"My concern is that... we don't have adequate housing options for everyone in their communities," said Burke Patton, communications manager for the nonprofit homeless advocacy group The Night Ministry.

Though he said the ministry had spent the better part of this week preparing unhoused people for the storm, by distributing warming center information alongside winter clothing, blankets and sleeping bags, he added that frostbite and hypothermia brought on by wet clothes remain major concerns. With fewer people outside amid the storm, he also warned that many unhoused persons faced a loss of income at a time they needed it most.

"Fewer people will be out and about... meaning people who rely on contributions from passerby won't have the means to access necessary resources," Patton said.

The Night Ministry is also operating a 24/7 youth shelter called The Crib throughout the storm for people aged 18-24. But Patton said no shelter could address the root causes of homelessness - such as a lack of public housing and the commodification of housing more generally - even after the storm passes.

"Unless we find solutions... we're going to keep having these conversations," Patton said. "When you're unhoused, every part of the year is dangerous."

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Categories / Environment, Regional

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