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Winds Add to Icy Misery in Midwest, East

January 06, 1988|LARRY GREEN and TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writers

CHICAGO — Wind-driven arctic cold swept across the nation's midsection and the Northeast on Tuesday, plunging much of the huge region into a paralyzing deep freeze and driving temperatures to frosty levels as far south as northern Florida.

In the upper Midwest, subzero cold and blustery 30-m.p.h. winds combined to create wind-chill factors of 75 degrees below zero in northern Minnesota and North Dakota. The wind chill was 54 degrees below zero in Chicago, 50 below in parts of Iowa and 40 below in western Pennsylvania.

"Those are not temperatures you can ignore," said meteorologist Pete Reynolds at the National Severe Storm Center in Kansas City. "It's cold. With the winds, it's really cold."

Warming Centers Open

Thousands crowded into shelters for the homeless and into warming centers from Minneapolis and Duluth to Des Moines to Dallas. Throughout the region, frozen water mains ruptured, power failed, cars stalled and railroad switches stuck as severe winter weather returned to the Midwest after two relatively mild years.

"What do you expect in January?" Reynolds asked. "This is the coldest outbreak this winter but it is not a record-breaking cold. . . . It's just not unusual for January. Perhaps it seems cold because we've had warm winters the past two winters."

Reynolds said, however, that some temperatures could reach record lows by early this morning.

In New York, with a low of 18 degrees, a cold-weather emergency was declared, giving police the right to round up and transport thousands of homeless people to 26 shelters. Tuesday morning almost 10,000 people awoke in New York City shelters alone.

In Washington, where the low was also 18 degrees with subzero wind chills, Mayor Marion Barry opened the doors of City Hall so that street people could sleep in a ground-floor hallway.

In Chicago, the eerie beauty of billowing clouds of steam rising into the chilly air above Lake Michigan gave evidence of the cold. The temperature was a numbing 11 degrees below zero at daybreak and never went above zero.

Many Stay Indoors

The city's normally busy downtown sidewalks were almost deserted; tables were easily available at popular restaurants; department stores were like ghost towns, and high-rise construction projects were idle as Windy City residents heeded warnings of perilous weather. The brutal, minus-54-degree wind chill was capable of freezing exposed skin in minutes. At least three Chicago deaths have been blamed on the cold.

Police foot patrols were canceled; schools reported up to 30% of their students absent, and pet owners were advised to keep their animals indoors. Virtually every Chicago municipal building, from libraries and public works garages to police stations, was opened to residents seeking shelter from the bitter cold.

City Hall telephone operators were fielding as many as 100 calls per hour from Chicagoans with inadequate heat.

Chicago's Commonwealth Edison Co. said it set a record high for winter electricity use Monday, shattering a record set in December, 1985. Meanwhile, natural gas consumption approached record levels, People's Gas said.

Record electricity use was also reported in Iowa.

Polar Bears Stay Dry

In Denver, where the low temperature Tuesday was 1 degree below zero--fully 10 degrees warmer than on Monday--the cold kept the polar bears at the city zoo out of the water, while the AAA Automobile Club was swamped with calls from motorists requesting help starting their cars. There was a five-hour wait for service in Denver, AAA reported, nine times normal.

The cold turned Denver streets and walks--covered with a layer of snow left over from a Christmas blizzard--into treacherous ice runs as the city stuck to a policy of not plowing residential streets. Because it usually can rely on sunshine to do the job, the city does not have the manpower or equipment to clear all streets after blizzards.

Angry residents flooded the Public Works Department with so many complaints that a public hearing on snow removal was scheduled for Monday. One resident made a snowman effigy of Denver Mayor Federico Pena and stuck it in a drift.

Hospitals reported an unusually high number of weather-related injuries.

"We're about 20% higher than normal with fractures--a lot of broken wrists and hips from people falling on the ice," said Dawn Johnson, a nurse at Swedish Medical Center.

At Stapleton International Airport, a 26-year-old watchman who had spent the night guarding an outdoor construction site was found comatose before dawn after the space heater he was using apparently malfunctioned and released fumes. He later died.

New snow fell across the central Rockies and the high plains, and at the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce in Montana, secretary Naomi Soll insisted that winter's beauty made up for its bite.

"It is beautiful," she said. "The snow makes the trees and everything look like it's covered with marshmallows."

Larry Green reported from Chicago and Tamara Jones from Denver. Researcher Wendy Leopold in Chicago also contributed to this story.

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