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31 January 2019updated 21 Sep 2021 6:33am

“People literally can’t leave their homes”: inside Chicago’s polar vortex

Beyond images of frozen lakes and firey train tracks, Chicago’s residents – and homeless – are suffering by the millions. 

By Sarah Manavis

The world has always loved images of Chicago freezing over. Whether it’s this week with train tracks having to literally be set on fire to keep from freezing, waves in Lake Michigan frozen mid-crest, or people having to wear ski gear just to get to work, it’s a city made for global stories garnering swathes of clicks and top news in international broadcasts.

However, while the arctic temperatures make for grabby headlines, Chicagoans are actually suffering – and while temperatures may let up in the coming weeks, the effects of the polar vortex have already proved fatal.

Chicago commuters, via Getty Images.

Paula, a state school teacher in inner-city Chicago, tells me that schools are closed and have been for days – a rarity in the city. Because homelessness among children in Chicago state schools is high, and many only get food from their school meals, the city only shuts the schools in the direst of circumstances. “It has to get really bad before they even consider that,” Paula tells me.

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Even though her husband has gone to work, he’s been told to bundle up in multiple layers for his safety. “If you’re outside for more than five minutes, you can get frostbite,” she says. Others have said that, with the newly dropped temperatures today, it takes less than a minute.

Maureen, a Chicago native, who grew up in the suburbs and now lives downtown, says that she’s never seen temperatures like this. “As kids, if it ever got below 17F (-8C), we weren’t allowed to walk to school,” she tells me. “Today it’s -26C.”

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-28 C via Getty Images.

Maddie lives in Chicago’s neighbourhood of Lincoln Square and works downtown. She tells me that she’s been stuck inside her house for several days, unable to leave her home. To go outside, Maddie says that she has been wearing two pairs of everything – trousers, hats, parkas, scarves, and gloves.

“Walking anywhere for longer than three minutes is still torturous,” she tells me. “My eyeballs are cold – how does that happen?” 

Her place of work, the Art Institute of Chicago, has been closed for two days, a fact Maddie calls “historic” given how little it’s ever closed in its more than 100-year history. “It’s rare because of the stature of the institution.” Having to conduct work over G-chat and collaborative calls, Maddie says that her multiple days inside are making her feel stir-crazy and trapped.

“But I guess the polar bears at Lincoln Park Zoo must be loving it,” she adds.

All of the people I spoke to pointed out that they can actually afford to keep their heating on, even though homes “just can’t get warm”. A friend of Maddie’s has already spent over $500 on plumbing issues, and his heating hasn’t been turned off the whole time due to bad windows. “He will end up paying a lot for this weather,” she says.

For those that can, though, it’s still not a desirable option: Chicago homeless shelters are dangerous for homeless people, havens for theft, and still force people to leave every morning. Paula tells me she knows hordes of people have been avoiding shelters altogether, donating blankets, coats, and sweaters to those stuck in parks in the -40C weather.  

Lake Michigan via Getty Images

While the death toll has already hit 11 in just a matter of days, we can expect that to rise. During the last major polar vortex in 2014, over one hundred people died due to cold weather, and while the temperature is expected to let up by next week, temperatures are still in the minus twenties through the next several days.

“I mean, people literally can’t leave their homes,” Maureen says. “It’s insane.” While the stunning images and funny stories may make for popular digital and broadcast fodder, the reality – and any future extreme weather like this – is far more morbid.