Polar vortex descends on U.S. with dangerously low temperatures

A cyclone of arctic air known as a polar vortex stretched from the Dakotas to the deep South, bringing wind chill warnings on the heels of near-blizzard conditions in some regions. Several Midwest states shut schools and urged everyone to stay inside, while airlines canceled thousands of flights. Gwen Ifill reports.


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GWEN IFILL:  Bitter arctic cold gripped the Midwest, pushed eastward and dove into the Deep South today.  Millions of people across dozens of states faced unheard-of temperatures. 

The frigid cold rushed in on the heels of near-blizzard conditions, emptying roads of traffic in parts of Illinois, while, in Michigan, accidents littered highways in icy, snowy conditions.  And St. Louis cleaned up from Sunday's one-day record snowfall: 10.6 inches. 

But the real danger was the cold.  Indiana Gov. Mike Pence urged people to use common sense. 

GOV. MIKE PENCE, R-Ind.: If you can stay in today, stay in all day today.  We ask you to heed signs about road closures.  We ask you to heed the leadership and announcements of local communities.  And they are for your safety, and it's important that we take this weather event very, very seriously. 

GWEN IFILL:  The arctic air, known as a polar vortex, stretched all the way from the Dakotas to the Deep South.  Wind chill warnings and advisories were in effect all the way to the Gulf Coast through Tuesday. 

And temperatures just kept dropping, to minus-16 in Bloomington, Minn., and with the breeze of a windchill, makes that minus-40.  Officials warned that frostbite can happen in just five minutes in temperatures that low.  People who did go outside bundled up to ward off the subzero temperatures. 

MAN:  I have got a heavy ski jacket and my scarf, and -- but I have got 12 blocks to walk in downtown Chicago. 

GWEN IFILL:  Some plunged into the deep freeze anyway.  This Green Bay Packers fan went to extremes to see Sunday's NFL playoff game with the San Francisco 49ers. 

WOMAN:  I have four layers of long johns, two sets of snow pants, four shirts, a sweatshirt and a coat. 

GWEN IFILL:  The Packers lost. 

Today, the cold and snow shuttered school systems in the entire state of Minnesota and in St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and Detroit.  For air travelers, it was hard to get anywhere, with more than 8,000 flights canceled since Friday, more than 3,000 today.  

WOMAN:  We finally got on the plane about an hour late, headed out, de-iced, started to de-ice, stopped de-icing, waited, de-iced again, headed for the runway, waited, and then turned around and went back to the gate again, and waited, and then finally got off the plane. 

 (LAUGHTER)

WOMAN:  So there was a lot of waiting, but here we are.  What can you do? 

GWEN IFILL:  The low, low temperatures are expected to last through tomorrow, then gradually inch their way into double digits by the end of the week.