MILWAUKEE — Bone-chilling cold gripped much of the central U.S. as 2018 began Monday, breaking century-old records, icing over some New Year’s celebrations and leading to at least two deaths attributed to exposure to the elements.
The National Weather Service issued wind chill advisories covering a vast area from South Texas to Canada and from Montana and Wyoming through New England. Dangerously low temperatures enveloped much of the Midwest, yet didn’t deter hundreds of people from ringing in the new year by jumping into Lake Michigan.
Despite sub-freezing temperatures and a warning of potential hypothermia from the local fire chief, throngs of people took part in the annual tradition in Milwaukee, warming up later with chili or heat from a beach fire pit.
A similar event was canceled from the Chicago lakefront, where the temperature dipped below zero as thick white steam rose from the lake Monday morning. Organizers said the arctic blast made jumping into the lake too dangerous.
“I’m not happy about it. But I was down by the lake and, gosh, if you were dropped in there, it’d take you 10 minutes to get out,” Jeff Coggins, who helped organize the thwarted Chicago event, told WBBM-TV.
Instead, would-be Chicago plungers had their pictures taken while jumping on the frozen beach — in their swimsuits.
Temperatures plunged below zero elsewhere in the Midwest, including in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where the mercury dropped to a record-breaking minus 32 (-36 Celsius). The previous New Year’s Day record had stood for 99 years.
In Nebraska, temperatures hit 15 below zero (-26 Celsius) before midnight Sunday in Omaha, breaking a record low dating to 1884. Omaha officials cited the forecast in postponing the 18th annual New Year’s Eve Fireworks Spectacular that draws around 30,000 people.
It was colder in Des Moines, Iowa, where city officials closed a downtown outdoor ice skating plaza and said it wouldn’t reopen until the city emerged from sub-zero temperatures. The temperature hit 20 below zero (-29 Celsius) early Monday, with the wind chill dipping to negative 31 degrees (-35 Celsius).
Indianapolis Public Schools canceled classes for Tuesday on all its campuses due to the predicted sub-zero temperatures. Students had been scheduled to return from winter break.
In northeastern Montana, the wind chill readings dipped as low as minus 58 (-50 Celsius). And in Duluth, Minnesota, a city known for its bitter cold winters, the wind chill dipped to 36 below zero (-38 Celsius).
Plunging overnight temperatures in Texas brought rare snow flurries as far south as Austin, and accidents racked up on icy roads across the state. In the central Texas city of Abilene, the local police chief said more than three dozen vehicle crashes were reported in 24 hours.
It’s even cold in the Deep South, a region more accustomed to brief bursts of arctic air than night after night below zero. Frozen pipes and dead car batteries were concerns from Louisiana to Georgia as overnight temperatures in the teens were predicted across the region by Monday night.
The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office said two bodies found Sunday showed signs of hypothermia. They included a man in his 50s found on the ground in an alley and a 34-year-old man. Police believe the cold weather also may have been a factor in the death of a man in Bismarck, North Dakota, whose body was found near a river.