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Cold Temperatures Grip Most Of US

Jan 6, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 2:14 pm

The “polar vortex” has descended on much of the country. It’s so cold that schools are closed in Chicago and St. Louis. More than 400 flights have been canceled in Chicago, and the Chicago Sun-Times has renamed the city “Chiberia.”

It’s 32 degrees below zero in Fargo, North Dakota, and in Indianapolis, it’s illegal for anyone to drive, except for emergencies or to seek shelter.

Here & Now’s Robin Young checks in with longtime reporter Dan Verbeck at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri.

And Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with Dan Burns, owner of a mechanical repair shop in St. Paul, Minnesota, about car problems caused by the cold.

Burns recommends that anyone driving in very cold weather should have some cold weather gear, such as a blanket and a snow shovel, in the vehicle. If you do break down, it could be be a long wait for a tow truck.


  • Dan Verbeck, reporter for KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, a member of the Here & Now Contributors Network. He tweets @dan_verbeck.
  • Dan Burns, owner of Lloyd’s Automotive, a mechanical repair shop in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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Now to those life-threatening cold temperatures. Chicago is calling itself Chiberia. The temperature at O'Hare Airport this morning was a record-low -16. Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee all have closed schools. In Indianapolis, Ind., the mayor has declared it illegal to drive except for emergencies.

You can blame it on the polar vortex weather effect, which is pulling down a frigid air mass. Wind chills that will drop into the -50s, in some places; out there in parts of Montana, you're going into the -60s. And we have a colleague from Canada who says it's common for people there to plug their cars into warming stations at malls and in garages, to devices that keep engines warm.

But these temperatures are unusual here. So let's check in in Kansas City, Mo., with Dan Verbeck. He's a longtime reporter for HERE AND NOW contributor KCUR. And Dan, what kind of temperatures are you seeing today?

DAN VERBECK, BYLINE: This morning at the chilliest, chilliest, Robin, it was 11 below.

YOUNG: Wow, so what's - I mean, is that common in your area?

VERBECK: We haven't had an 11 below spell around Kansas City since I understand 1996.


VERBECK: So it's been a bit, and it is darn cold.

YOUNG: It's darn cold. Well, one of your tweets you were talking about it's time to take out the cardboard to do what with it?

VERBECK: Well, you know, in order to get your radiator, the cooling system in your car, up to where it's going to put heat out onto your feet when you're driving, you have to kind of stem the cold that's coming in. So you slide a little piece of cardboard. Not - you don't entirely cover the front of the radiator, but you cover a lot of it, and as you drive, then, that blast of cold air isn't chilling - keeping your motor from warming up.

YOUNG: Oh, so you put it between the grill and the radiator. Well one tip there. People are sharing other tips. Officials in Wisconsin are warning that you should maybe tap on your car hood before you start your engine because stray cats sometimes try to get warm in an engine compartment. But this is pretty serious. We'd love to hear other people's tips.

And we know that in your area, a lot of people - this cold is really affecting water.

VERBECK: Well, a couple of things. You don't want your pipes to freeze. No matter where you live in the country, if it's going to get really, really cold, you're in danger of having your inside pipes to, you know, to your faucets freezing, so...

YOUNG: So they say let the water drip, let the water drip for your faucet.

VERBECK: Let the water drip, or you can just - well, you can do that. You can open the - I open the cabinet doors underneath the sinks. That allows room temperature to flow back in there, especially if you live in a log house like I do, and you have a few cracks. You want to make sure that you're keeping as much heat inside against your pipes.

YOUNG: Well, tell us more about that because you are in a rural area, log house, and so you truck in your own water. What's happening with that?

VERBECK: The only problem with that is - well, twofold. You have to get through the snow with a truck that's loaded down with a lot of heavy water. And once you get in, the cistern lid is made of concrete, and they tend to freeze when it gets cold like this, concrete on concrete. So you keep a crowbar handy so you can open up your cistern lid so you can pour your water in. That's if you don't have public water.

YOUNG: Well, but even a cistern, is that going to keep it from freezing?

VERBECK: Well, it's in-ground, so it's going to be warmer down there, you know, 55 degrees or so, down in the ground. So it's OK once it's in there.

YOUNG: Well, but what about the crops? You've got farmers there who might have just planted wheat seeds. What's going on there?

VERBECK: Yeah, the hard red winter wheat is the mainstay around the Midwest, and it is really hardy if the ground is dry. The winter wheat has been planted in the fall, and when it gets really, really cold like this, you know, 10 below zero, if it stays that way for several days, the wheat seed that is in the ground tends to get some damage to it.

YOUNG: So keep an eye on that. What about livestock?

VERBECK: It's tough on livestock, but we've got a couple of things in our favor. The snow that came down in advance of this bitter cold was a really dry snow, and it tends to dust off the cattle. And so their hides are not wet. And they can - they have a lot of good body fur to them, or hair, and they'll survive through some extremely cold temperatures as long as they can move around and move to food, to water. If they're in deep snow, then they're in trouble.

YOUNG: We remember that's what happened to the - remember that's what happened to the livestock in the Dakotas when there was a terrible storm there. Meanwhile it plunged into the 20s in northern Georgia this morning, expected to be in the 30s in parts of Florida. Concern about fruit trees. You know, what else are you thinking, you there in Kansas City but also maybe just regionally?

VERBECK: We're looking for some positive thing out of this, and I need to put in a call shortly to the Missouri Department of Conservation. The extreme cold may kill off some noxious critters that may be out there. It may lessen the tick population come spring. But I do need to double-check that. There may be some beneficial qualities to this terrible cold.

YOUNG: Don't bet on it. Actually we hear that, you know, there's still deer ticks up in the Maine area, for instance, because the deer are still out, and the ticks are still there. But maybe with the cold it will get rid of them.

VERBECK: Maybe, we'll check.

YOUNG: Dan Verbeck, reporter for KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, stay as warm as you can.

VERBECK: I'll do my level best, thank you so much.

YOUNG: And listeners, tell us: How cold is it where you are? Let us know at And Meghna, even if it's not cold where you are, it may be blue. How are you feeling today?


Don't take the fact that I'm wearing all blue as indicative of anything.

YOUNG: No, how's your mood?

CHAKRABARTI: I'm pretty good.

YOUNG: Well, then you're an outlier, apparently. British researchers have declared today Blue Monday. They analyzed more than two million tweets over the past three years. They found complaints about the weather six times higher than usual on this day, people also starting to feel guilty about abandoning their New Year's resolutions on this day.


YOUNG: And in the U.K., this is traditionally the day of the year where most divorce proceedings begin. But before you decide, OK, well then I'm going to go with the flow and be in a funk, we should caution The Guardian is saying this notion of Blue Monday is a load of rubbish. The study was commissioned by a travel company, which probably wants you to book a vacation.

CHAKRABARTI: Well nevertheless, some of our listeners on our Facebook page seem to agree. Pat Costa(ph) is, quote, "too depressed to even think about it." Listeners, weigh in at And we look forward to hearing how you're doing in this cold or warm, wherever you are.

YOUNG: On Blue Monday.

CHAKRABARTI: On Blue Monday. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.