Michigan hunkers down as polar vortex hits

The Detroit News
A homeless woman panhandles on Warren Avenue in Detroit. on Tuesday. The expected temperatures will raise the frostbite risk.

Baby, it's not just cold outside. It's state-of-emergency cold.

Detroit woke up Wednesday morning to thermometer readings around minus 6, the National Weather Service said. With the wind chill? A dangerously low minus 32. And the expected high? Minus 5, close to the all-time low of minus 4 for the day set in 1951. The overnight low into Thursday could dip to minus 15.

At those temperatures, exposed skin can get frostbitten in as little as 15 minutes.

As a result, schools and universities across Metro Detroit and the rest of Michigan are closed Wednesday. All state offices are closed, including the Michigan House and state Senate. Mail services in several areas of the state have been suspended for Wednesday. Those who didn't have have to go to work or school prepared to hunker down after stocking up on milk, bread and diapers. Furnace-repair companies and tow-truck drivers are looking at their busiest days of the year. Detroit said all its bus routes will be free Wednesday. And homeless shelters began making the rounds Tuesday night, trying to coax the vulnerable indoors.

“You’re going to freeze or lose a limb,” said Terra DeFoe, a senior adviser to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, in a message to those who refused help.

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Bundled against the cold, pedestrians and a sandwich shop delivery rider make their way under a sign proclaiming a balmy +7 degrees on Tuesday in downtown Lansing.

Most of the state's public universities are closed, including Wayne State, Oakland, Michigan, Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Grand Valley State and Michigan Tech. That doesn't begin to count the elementary and high schools across the state, where an unscheduled winter break for many began with a snow day on Monday.

The University of Michigan was the last to announce a Wednesday closure, with officials making a decision late Tuesday afternoon after students there circulated an online petition demanding the university close. "A refusal to do so is classist and ableist, with disproportionate effects on workers, low income community members, and community members who are not able-bodied,” the petition charged.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an order declaring a state of emergency in Michigan. She said Tuesday her move will harness government resources and ensure the public “understands the seriousness” of the once-in-a-generation cold snap.

Warming centers around southeast Michigan opened their doors. Detroit's 12 recreation centers are open to the public during regular operating hours, but the city's library system will be closed Wednesday and Thursday because of the weather. Four warming centers in the city will be open overnight. Around 50 warming centers in Wayne County's suburbs also are open. 

Deontai Jordan, 19, and dozens of others found refuge from the cold in the basement of a church in Ann Arbor.

“You come here, you can take a nap, you can snack, you can use the bathroom, you might even be able to shower,” he said. “And then they’re feeding you well. Not to mention they give out clothes, they give out shoes, they give out socks.”

Officials with Detroit's 36th District Court said it will be closed Wednesday and Thursday. Court administrator Kelli Moore Owen said in a statement, "Many litigants also rely on public transportation. For those people, exposure to the frigid temperature is dangerous, and that was the main factor in deciding to close our court.”

Even the zoos will be closed. The Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center will be closed to guests on Wednesday and may be closed on Thursday, zoo officials said Tuesday.

Zoo spokeswoman Patricia Mills Janeway said, "Certain cold-hardy animals – including wolverines, polar bears and wolves – will have access to the outdoors as they so choose; others will be cared for indoors. We have added radiant heaters to the yards for the fallow deer."

 AAA Michigan is staffing its call center to handle the huge number of calls for roadside assistance from those looking for a jump or a tow.

Likewise, furnace repair companies steeling themselves for all the calls. Technical Hot & Cold in Westland is one of the companies that's scheduling a team of technicians that will be working overnight to handle emergency calls.

Mike Brandes, of Berville in St. Clair County, shovels out his driveway near the end of North Avenue so he can go to work Tuesday morning

“We’re expecting a big rush of people that are going to need emergency furnace services," said Jason Freeman, operations manager. "We work the best we can. We have parts on the truck. We’re all gamed up for it.”

To keep water pipes from freezing and bursting, residents should keep the heat turned up during the night, to keep a thin stream of water running from faucets, and to keep cabinet doors open in kitchens and bathrooms. Thaw any frozen pipes gently with a hair dryer. 

As cold as it will get in southeast Michigan, it will be even colder in other parts of the state. The National Weather Service says it could drop to minus 29 in Kingsford, near Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula. Some areas in lower southwest Michigan are expected to reach minus 20.

A blizzard warning for Alger County and northern Schoolcraft County in the Upper Peninsula has been issued until Thursday morning. The weather service said the storm could bring between 5 inches to 14 inches of snow and winds could reach as high as 40 mph along the M-28 corridor.

The best news about all of this is that it won't last long. By Sunday, the weather service says it will hit a balmy 44 degrees in Detroit.

Staff Writers Jennifer Chambers, Breana Noble, Candice Williams, Charles E. Ramirez, James David Dickson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Extended forecast

Thursday: Mostly sunny with a high near 2 degrees and a low of about minus 5 degrees.

Friday: Partly sunny with a high near 12 degrees and a low of about minus 1 degree.

Saturday: Mostly sunny with a high near 30 degrees and a low of about 25 degrees.

Sunday: Cloudy with a high near 43 degrees and a low of about 33 degrees. Rain and snow likely.

Monday: Cloudy with a high near 41 degrees. Rain and snow likely.

Source: National Weather Service