CHICAGO — The painfully cold weather system that put much of the Midwest into a historic deep freeze was expected to ease Thursday, though temperatures could still tumble to record lows in some places before the region begins to thaw out.
Disruptions caused by the cold will persist, too, including power outages and canceled flights and trains.
Before the worst of the cold begins to lift, the National Weather Service said Chicago could hit lows early Thursday that break the city's record of minus 27 (minus 32 Celsius) set on Jan. 20, 1985. Some nearby isolated areas could see temperatures as low as minus 40 (minus 40 Celsius). That would break the Illinois record of minus 36 (minus 38 Celsius), set in Congerville on Jan. 5, 1999.
As temperatures bounce back into the single digits Thursday and into the comparative balmy 20s by Friday, more people were expected to return to work in the nation's third-largest city, which resembled a ghost town after most offices told employees to stay home.
The blast of polar air that enveloped much of the Midwest on Wednesday closed schools and businesses and strained infrastructure with some of the lowest temperatures in a generation. The deep freeze snapped rail lines, canceled hundreds of flights and strained utilities.
All Chicago Public Schools will remain closed Thursday due to the impending freezing temps. Several other schools across the Chicago area are also closed.
Flight delays and cancelations
Major delays continue to be a problem at both Chicago airports.
Over 1,440 flights have been canceled at O'Hare Airport, and over 250 flights have been canceled at Midway airport. Get the latest flight info at flightview.com
Amtrak, Metra Electric and South Shore Line train service canceled Thursday
Amtrak is beginning to restore service out of Chicago after cancelling dozens of trains this week because of the extreme cold. The passenger railroad said it will restore service on some routes Thursday, and all but one train is expected to operate on Friday. For more information visit Amtrak.com.
The South Shore Line, which runs into northern Indiana, remains out of service Thursday. For more information visit mysouthshoreline.com
Metra trains will run on a modified scheduled. Metra Electric service is suspended Thursday. Metra Electric riders are encouraged to use the Rock Island Line as an alternate. For more information visit metrarail.com
Chicago dropped to a low of around minus 23 (minus 30 Celsius), slightly above the city's lowest-ever reading of minus 27 (minus 32 Celsius) from January 1985.
Wind chills reportedly made it feel like minus 50 (minus 45 Celsius) or worse. Trains and buses in Chicago operated with few passengers. The hardiest commuters ventured out only after covering nearly every square inch of flesh against the extreme chill, which froze ice crystals on eyelashes and eyebrows in minutes.
The Postal Service took the rare step of suspending mail delivery for another day in many places.
The bitter cold was the result of a split in the polar vortex, a mass of cold air that normally stays bottled up in the Arctic. The split allowed the air to spill much farther south than usual. In fact, Chicago was colder than the Canadian village of Alert, one of the world's most northerly inhabited places. Alert, which is 500 miles (804 kilometers) from the North Pole, reported a temperature that was a couple of degrees higher.
Officials in dozens of cities focused on protecting vulnerable people from the cold, including the homeless, seniors and those living in substandard housing.
At least eight deaths were linked to the system, including an elderly Illinois man who was found several hours after he fell trying to get into his home and a University of Iowa student found behind an academic hall several hours before dawn. Elsewhere, a man was struck by a snowplow in the Chicago area, a young couple's SUV struck another on a snowy road in northern Indiana and a Milwaukee man froze to death in a garage, authorities said.
Aside from the safety risks and the physical discomfort, the system's icy grip also took a heavy toll on infrastructure, halting transportation, knocking out electricity and interrupting water service.
Amtrak canceled scores of trains to and from Chicago, one of the nation's busiest rail hubs. Several families who intended to leave for Pennsylvania stood in ticket lines at Chicago's Union Station only to be told all trains were canceled until Friday.
"Had I known we'd be stranded here, we would have stayed in Mexico longer — where it was warmer," said Anna Ebersol, who was traveling with her two sons.
Ten diesel-train lines in the Metra commuter network kept running, unlike the electric lines, but crews had to heat vital switches with gas flames and watched for rails that were cracked or broken. When steel rails break or even crack, trains are automatically halted until they are diverted or the section of rail is repaired, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis explained.