Polar vortex 2019: Temperatures to plunge to 'historic' lows not seen in decades

The harsh winter blast that has already killed at least seven people will worsen dramatically Wednesday, forecasters warned, saying that the expected conditions could be the coldest in a generation.

The National Weather Service late Tuesday described the polar vortex system surging from the north as "one of the coldest arctic air mass intrusions in recent memory." It said bitterly cold, very dangerous wind chills would spread across much of the eastern two-thirds of the country, "likely leading to widespread record lows and low maximum temperatures" plunging more than 20 degrees below zero in the Midwest.

Frigid, icy conditions have been blamed for at least seven deaths so far:

  • An 82-year-old man died Tuesday afternoon after he was found suffering from hypothermia outside his home in Pekin, Illinois, the Peoria County Coroner's Office told NBC affiliate WEEK of Peoria.
  • A man was found frozen in a detached garage near his home in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, apparently after he had been shoveling snow, the county medical examiner's office said Tuesday.
  • A man was killed when he was struck by a city snowplow at the end of his driveway Monday morning in Libertyville, Illinois, southwest of Waukegan, city officials told NBC Chicago. The snowplow driver was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.
  • A 31-year-old man was killed Monday when he lost control of his vehicle, struck a light pole and was ejected on icy Interstate 80 north of Des Moines, Iowa. The state patrol said the man was driving too fast for the weather conditions.
  • A 9-year-old Nebraska boy died Sunday when the vehicle he was traveling in lost traction on the icy I-80 in Cass County and rolled into a ditch. Five other people were injured, the Iowa State Patrol said.
  • A 59-year-old man was found dead on Tuesday in his driveway near the border of Delaware County and Madison County, Indiana. Delaware County Coroner Rick Howell said it appeared the man fell outside his home.
  • An 87-year-old woman was also found dead outside her Delaware County, Indiana, home on Sunday. Delaware County Coroner Rick Howell said he is awaiting toxicology reports on the woman and the man who died on Tuesday.

Almost 1,000 flight arrivals and departures scheduled for Wednesday were preemptively canceled at the O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. More than 320 were scrubbed in advance at the city's other major airport, Midway International.

Amtrak said all trains scheduled to and from Chicago on Wednesday were also canceled.

Forecasters said that on Wednesday, subzero temperatures would cover large parts of the East and the Midwest where as many as 75 million Americans live. By Wednesday night, 85 percent of the U.S. land area and 230 million Americans will have experienced freezing temperatures, they said.

Related: Freezing weather caused by polar vortex:

Freezing weather caused by polar vortex
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Freezing weather caused by polar vortex
Metra trains go in and out of the Western Avenue Station in subzero temperatures on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019 in Chicago. This is the busiest station with over 300 trains passing through here on weekdays. The tracks are heated with gas-fired switch heaters that help prevent switching problems in extreme weather. Metra spokesperson Meg Reile said, 'They are like giant gas grills.' (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
A pedestrian stops to take a photo by Chicago River, as bitter cold phenomenon called the polar vortex has descended on much of the central and eastern United States, in Chicago, Illinois.
The city skyline is seen from the North Avenue Beach at Lake Michigan, as bitter cold phenomenon called the polar vortex has descended on much of the central and eastern United States, in Chicago, Illinois.
Workers help clear the parking lot at Monocacy commuter rail and bus station January 29, 2019 in Frederick, Maryland.
Commuters wait for the bus on South Pinckney Street in downtown Madison, Wis. as extreme temperatures hit the region.
Commuters drive into downtown Madison, Wis. on East Washington Ave. as extreme temperatures hit the region. 
A man and woman brave the elements during a polar vortex on as they prepare to cross the corner of Main Street and Salem Avenue in Carbondale, Pa.

Record lows were forecast over a wide stretch of the Midwest: Rochester, Minnesota, was forecast to reach 31 degrees below zero overnight. Milwaukee was expected to drop to minus 28 degrees. Des Moines, Iowa, could hit minus 21.

"Historic cold, unprecedented cold, these are all adjectives you could use to describe this," Kathryn Prociv, a meteorologist for NBC News, said.

"These are some of the coldest temperatures an entire generation has ever felt, talking about the millennials," Prociv said. "A lot of these temperatures will be the coldest since about 1994, when a lot of them were just being born."

The U.S. Postal Service said it would suspend delivery services on Wednesday in Minnesota, western Wisconsin, Iowa and western Illinois. There will also be no mail or package pickups, it said.

"You're talking about frostbite and hypothermia issues very quickly, like in a matter of minutes, maybe seconds," said Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center.

For emergency responders, such conditions are life-threatening but part of the job.

When any equipment gets wet, it "freezes to the ground," Rochester fire Capt. Greg Neumann said.

"Even the hose lines get froze up," Neumann told NBC affiliate KTTC. "They grab the snow, so everything is three times heavier than they actually are."

But in Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin complained that people just aren't tough enough. In an interview with WHAS radio of Louisville, Bevin said he wasn't happy that dozens of districts were canceling classes Wednesday.

"Now we cancel school for cold," Bevin told Terry Meiners, the host. "I mean, there's no ice going with it or any snow. What happens to America? We're getting soft, Terry. We're getting soft."

Bevin said that he was being "only slightly facetious" and that he had a real concern — "that in America, on this and any number of other fronts, we're sending messages to our young people that if life is hard, you can curl up in the fetal position somewhere in a warm place and just wait 'til it stops being hard. And that just isn't reality."

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