Temperatures in Chicago could be colder than the surface of Mars.
That’s one comparison communicators are using to impress upon audiences how dangerous the Midwest weather is.
Authorities have been sharing the news on social media and through other channels for several days to get their message in front of as many eyeballs as possible before the temperature plummeted.
All across the Midwest this week, preparations were underway in neighborhoods, on farms and in homeless shelters for a bone-deep, relentless chill expected through Thursday. Nearly 90 million people are likely to experience temperatures at or below zero in the Midwest and New England, according to the National Weather Service; 25 million of them will face temperatures below minus-20 — dips that when combined with wind can cause frostbite in a matter of minutes.
The extreme cold already has been blamed for one death in Minnesota, and it has caused statewide declarations of emergency, school closures, Postal Service interruptions and 1,000 airline flight cancellations across the country.
Wind chill estimates plummeted to minus-50 in the Dakotas and northern Minnesota on Tuesday morning, and that same, painfully frigid air is forecast to spread southeast into Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit. Winds will make it feel like temperatures of minus-30 to minus-40 as far south as Illinois and northern Indiana; it is forecast to feel as low as minus-65 across the northern Great Lakes region.
The National Weather Service described the temperatures as “life-threatening cold.” It tried to put the temperatures in perspective by looking at prior extreme lows. Nothing remotely close has been reported since 1994.
The service posted warnings on social media:
#Chicago officially fell below zero prior to 6pm at O'Hare and it may not get back to zero until Thursday evening. #Rockford fell below zero between 3pm and 4pm and may not get back to zero until Friday morning. #ilwx
— NWS Chicago (@NWSChicago) January 30, 2019
— NWS Twin Cities (@NWSTwinCities) January 29, 2019
Social media was also a place for sharing life-saving efforts and announcing the closings of schools and businesses. Many companies (including Chicago-based Ragan Communications, publisher of Ragan.com and PR Daily) urged staffers to work remotely, if possible.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel tweeted how homeless shelters would be helping people with no warm place to go.
As temperatures continue to drop, we’re adding extra beds to shelters to ensure everyone in need has a safe, warm place to stay. No one in need of a shelter bed will be turned away. Those seeking access to #warmingcenters, a bed or experiencing inadequate heat should call 3-1-1. pic.twitter.com/dGH1oBTpCW
— Mayor Rahm Emanuel (@ChicagosMayor) January 29, 2019
Other businesses told their customers their doors would be closed:
We're shutting down at 7pm tonight and will be closed tomorrow due to the dangerous cold. Come stock up on crowlers (and get $6 off your 3-packs) to stock up! pic.twitter.com/FP87GblD8x
— Tin Whiskers Brewery (@TinWhiskersBrew) January 30, 2019
Airlines canceled flights, sharing updates on Twitter:
We’ve issue a travel waiver due to forecasted weather in the
Chicago area for January 22-23. See more details here: https://t.co/4lUmOeNra8
— Delta (@Delta) January 22, 2019
With safety as our top priority, we are significantly reducing our schedule at Chicago O’Hare from 1/29 -1/31. We’ll continue to monitor the weather and make additional changes as needed. A travel waiver is in place through 2/1: https://t.co/IF60Hh7jBZ pic.twitter.com/C8Wem0bVKj
— United Airlines (@united) January 29, 2019
We have issued travel waivers in advance of anticipated winter weather in the U.S. Northern Plains and the Great Lakes & Ohio Valley regions. Check your flight status on our mobile app or at https://t.co/7fA7qou73B before going to the airport. Waivers: https://t.co/IF60Hh7jBZ pic.twitter.com/cD2wUVBNao
— United Airlines (@united) January 26, 2019
Due to forecasted winter weather conditions, service to Chicago Midway, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis/St. Paul may be disrupted through Friday, February 1.
— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) January 28, 2019
One meteorologist tweeted a permission slip for people unexcused from work or school to stay home:
It's about to be very cold, and many schools and offices are announcing closings for Wednesday & Thursday. In case yours hasn't, here's my permission to stay safely inside and at home. pic.twitter.com/6HQFAuKzdQ
— Dana Fulton (@DanaFultonWX) January 29, 2019
Some companies saw the polar vortex as an opportunity to give back to the community.
To help our communities avoid the extreme cold caused by the polar vortex, we're providing Relief Rides to warming centers across Chicago, the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Madison and Detroit until 2/1. https://t.co/nhOXdlN9rD
— Lyft (@lyft) January 29, 2019
Other social media accounts are using humor:
I’m EXTREMELY dead and don’t mind. https://t.co/wGaf09sn4H
— 🦖 SUE el tiranosaurio rex 🦖 (@SUEtheTrex) January 29, 2019
As for schools? Most are closing.
Scores of colleges from the Universities of South Dakota and Iowa, to Michigan State, Notre Dame in Indiana and Kent State in Ohio are canceling classes. Public school systems in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis and Minneapolis are all closed, with Chicago’s already calling off classes for Thursday, as well.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz considered shuttering all schools statewide, but decided against it.
“In many cases, these local officials know best,” Walz told reporters Tuesday. “And one of the things that I’m concerned about is, is when you close a school sometimes, that is the place of warmth and food that is not available elsewhere.”
Even the U.S. Postal Service is taking the rare step of suspending mail delivery today in Minnesota, Iowa, Western Wisconsin and Western Illinois. So while it’s unofficial motto may promise that “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” but apparently dangerous, bone-chilling cold will.
Not everyone was thrilled with the response to the extreme temperatures. Kentucky’s governor shared his misgivings on a morning radio show.
Matt Bevin, the Republican governor of Kentucky, seems to think so. He lamented school closures in his state on Wednesday — when the wind chill could make it feel as frosty as minus-15 — as evidence that the country had lost its mettle.
“I mean, what happens to America?” he wondered during an interview on Tuesday with 840 WHAS radio in Louisville, where several school districts said they would close in anticipation of a blast of arctic air from the polar vortex, expected to bring life-threatening temperatures to parts of the Midwest and nearby states.
[…]“We’re getting soft,” warned Bevin, who loves posting selfies on social media but has also blocked hundreds of his constituents from interacting with his pages because he doesn’t like what they say about him, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. In case his message wasn’t clear, he repeated: “We’re getting soft.”
The president asked what had happened to “global warming”?
In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 29, 2019
Many communicators tried to explain the weather phenomenon in context.
— NOAA Climate.gov (@NOAAClimate) January 29, 2019
In a statement to CBS News, NOAA said the tweet was not made in response to Mr. Trump, but was “something NOAA routinely puts out when we get an extreme cold snap such as the one we’re in now.”
Health officials also shared warnings about the effect of the extreme temperatures.
“It’s one thing for it to have cold air outside, but when you combine cold air with a strong wind it really rapidly pulls the heat away from any exposed skin,” said Andrew Hills, emergency response coordinator at Central District Health Department. “So any exposed skin is going to start to really feel the cold.”
Hills said in really extreme cases, too much time in the cold could lead to frostbite and hypothermia.
Frostbite causes numbing, and makes the skin feel waxy, and grey or yellow in color.
Symptoms of hypothermia include confusion, drowsiness and uncontrollable shivering.
To help prevent contracting frostbite or hypothermia, Hills said you should make sure to wear a hat, gloves, scarf, heavy boots and coat in extreme weather.
Here are three tips for warning people about extreme weather:
- Start talking early. It’s important to get your message out early and make sure your audience has time to hear it and adjust their plans. If you intend to close your shop, make sure your customers know, so they don’t make a dangerous trip only to find a closed store.
- Use direct language. In an extreme event, you might be tempted to wax poetic or indulge in hyperbole. Doing so can confuse or distract your reader. Talk about the dangers in simple, clear language, and offer easy-to-follow action steps to avoid risks.
- Don’t forget social media. It’s great that you got that on-air interview or coverage in the local paper. Those channels just don’t have the reach they used to, especially for younger demographics. If you do land coverage in a traditional outlet, cross-promote it on your social media channels.
PR Daily readers, how is your organization discussing these extreme conditions with your audience?