Deep freeze envelops Minnesota, even stops the mail

Andrea Billings keeps her face covered while walking to her car after work Tuesday in downtown Rochester, Minn.

A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped Minnesota and rest of the upper Midwest Wednesday, forcing widespread closure of schools, offices and prompting the U.S. Postal Service to take the rare step of suspending mail delivery to a wide swath of the region because of the cold.

Many normal activities shut down and residents huddled inside as the National Weather Service forecast plunging temperatures from one of the coldest air masses in years. The bitter cold is the result of a split in the polar vortex that allowed temperatures to plunge much further south than normal.

Officials throughout the region were focused on protecting vulnerable people from the cold, including the homeless, seniors and those living in substandard housing.

Major Minnesota attractions including the Walker Art Museum and several Minnesota Historical Society sites — including Split Rock Lighthouse — weren’t opening Wednesday. Even grocery stores were conceding defeat. Lunds & Byerlys and Kowalski’s said they would be closing at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

The cold weather was even affecting beer deliveries, with a pair of western Wisconsin distributors saying they would delay or suspend shipments for fear that beer would freeze in their trucks.

On the mail front, "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" says the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service.

Notably absent from that famous phrase is "extreme cold."

The U.S. Postal Service said it would suspend mail delivery on Wednesday in parts or all of several Midwest states including North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

The Postal Service said retail operations will be available, but may be limited, and mail won’t be picked up from businesses or collection boxes.

The cold isn’t stopping one of America’s most formidable endurance tests, however — the three-day Arrowhead 135 was going on as scheduled in northeastern Minnesota. Competitors can cover the race route by bicycle, cross-country skis or just running.

‘Emergency situation’ for Twin Cities homeless

Homeless people in the Twin Cities are being forced to sleep in light rail trains or on the streets during this week’s stretch of deadly cold weather as most shelters are full in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"It’s tragic and very, very difficult to reconcile the fact that we’ve got limited housing and limited shelter options in this town when we know that there’s folks that don’t have a place on days like this," said Steve Horsfield, executive director of the homeless advocacy nonprofit Simpson Housing Services.

Many shelters are open extended hours this week, but there still aren’t enough beds available for people who want them, said Chris Knutson, street outreach team lead at St. Stephen’s Human Services.

Hawaii native Charles Henry, 54, was staying at a shelter in St. Paul, and said he was grateful to have a place to stay out of the cold.

"That wind chill out there is not even a joke," he said. "I feel sorry for anybody that has to stay outside."

Schools remain closed
Reed and Brennan Schumann play Kings in the Corners as they enjoy a day off from school on Monday in St. Paul, Minn.

Hundreds of public schools and colleges canceled classes Tuesday and Wednesday because of the frigid weather.

Officials in many school districts are still deciding whether to call off classes Thursday as well, while the University of Minnesota extended its class cancellation through noon Thursday in the Twin Cities.

Most other business on campus will also be closed until noon Thursday.

Thousands without electricity

As many as 6,300 Xcel Energy customers didn’t have electricity at one point Tuesday night as temperatures continued to plunge.

Xcel received multiple calls over a specific outage near Savage, spokesperson Matt Lindstrom said. That problem was related to the cold weather, he said, but he didn’t have specifics.

American Indian tribes in the Upper Midwest were doing what they could to help members in need with heating supplies. The extreme cold was "a scary situation," because much of the housing is of poor quality, said Chris Fairbanks, energy assistance program manager for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota.

Relief on the way

The cold is attributed to a sudden warming far above the North Pole. A blast of warm air from misplaced Moroccan heat last month made the normally super chilly air temperatures above the North Pole rapidly increase. That split the polar vortex into pieces, which then started to wander, said Judah Cohen, a winter storm expert for Atmospheric Environmental Research.

One of those polar vortex pieces is responsible for the subzero temperatures across the Midwest this week.

But here’s good news: relief is in sight! The National Weather Service says temperatures are expected to rebound 75 degrees — that’s right, 75 degrees — between Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon. The forecasted highs this Sunday for southeastern Minnesota is around 45; northern Minnesota is expected to hit 20 and 30.

If you’ve had enough of feeling numb after being outside for just two minutes, we have good news! Temperatures are expected to rebound 75 degrees between Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon… 😃

— NWS Twin Cities (@NWSTwinCities) January 30, 2019

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