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Below-zero temperatures descend on U.S. Midwest, Northeast as part of dangerous ‘polar vortex’

CHICAGO – Snow-covered roads, high winds and ice were creating dangerous driving conditions from the Midwest to the Northeast on Sunday ahead of a “polar vortex” that will bring below-zero Fahrenheit (below minus 18 Celsius) – and possibly record-breaking temperatures not seen in years to much of the U.S.

The counterclockwise-rotating pool of cold, dense air will affect more than half of the continental U.S. throughout Sunday and into Monday and Tuesday, with wind chill warnings stretching from Montana to Alabama. With it comes a startling forecast: 25 below zero Fahrenheit (31 below zero Celsius) in Fargo, North Dakota, minus 31 F (minus 35 C) in International Falls, Minnesota, and 15 below F (26 below C) in Indianapolis and Chicago.

“It’s just a dangerous cold,” National Weather Service meteorologist Butch Dye in Missouri said.

Several states in the Midwest were getting walloped with up to a foot of new snow, and residents shovelled out and stocked up on groceries before bitterly cold temperatures set in overnight.

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Five to 7 inches (12.5 to 17.5 centimetres) fell overnight in the Chicago area, while 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 centimetres) was expected to fall in central Illinois, Indiana and Michigan on Sunday, National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Fenelon said. Forecasts also called for several inches (centimetres) in western Tennessee and 1 to 3 inches (2.5 to 7.5 centimetres) in Kentucky.

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In Chicago, temperatures were expected to fall throughout Sunday to about 11 degrees F (minus 11.5 C) by 5 p.m., “and from there it will be a free fall for the rest of the night,” with temperatures bottoming out around minus 15 F (minus 26 C) overnight and likely setting a daily record, Fenelon said. Earlier Sunday, the National Weather Service reported temperatures in the 20-below F (29-below C) range in northern Minnesota and Grand Forks, North Dakota.

It hasn’t been this cold for almost two decades in many parts of the U.S. Because of that, medical experts are reminding people that frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly at 15 to 30 below zero F (26 to 34.4 below zero C), and say it’s key to dress in layers, hats and gloves.

In St. Louis, grocery stores sold out of the essentials before Sunday’s weather onslaught.

“The problem is the bread is sold out. We’re out of milk. We sold out of chips, chicken wings, some meats,” Issa Arar of Salama Supermarket said.

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Travel problems started early Sunday. In New York City, a plane from Toronto landed at Kennedy International Airport and then slid into snow on a taxiway. No one was hurt, though the airport temporarily suspended operations for two hours because of icy runways.

About 1,200 flights had been cancelled Sunday at O’Hare and Midway international airports in Chicago, aviation officials said, and there also were cancellations at Logan International Airport in Boston and Tennessee’s Memphis and Nashville international airports.

Roads in the Midwest were particularly dangerous. Indian State Police said Interstate 70 in the western part of the state was snow-covered, and officials in Missouri warned that it was too cold for rock salt to be very effective.

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“If it gets to the point where it’s no longer safe, we will consider suspending operations,” said Missouri Department of Transportation spokeswoman Marie Elliott.

School has been called off Monday for the entire state of Minnesota, as well as for cities and districts in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, among others.

Southern states are bracing for possible record temperatures, too, with single-digit highs (highs from minus 13 to minus 17) expected Tuesday in Georgia and Alabama. Farmers were taking extra precautions to protect their crops and animals.

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In Wisconsin, Sunday’s National Football League playoff game in Green Bay’s Lambeau Field could be one of the coldest ever played: A frigid minus 2 degrees F (minus 19 degrees C) when the Packers and San Francisco 49ers kick off in the afternoon. Doctors suggest fans wear at least three layers and drink warm fluids – not alcohol.

Associated Press reporters Jim Salter in St. Louis; Brett Barrouquere in Louisville, Kentucky; Verena Dobnik in New York City; David N. Goodman in Berkeley, Michigan; and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans contributed to this report.