Polar vortex keeps crisis communicators busy across the Midwest

As officials warn of the coldest temperatures in a generation, many are working to educate people about the dangers of the deep freeze and to share updates to protect readers.

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.

The Washington Post reported:

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:

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.

Other businesses told their customers their doors would be closed:

Airlines canceled flights, sharing updates on Twitter:

One meteorologist tweeted a permission slip for people unexcused from work or school to stay home:

Some companies saw the polar vortex as an opportunity to give back to the community.

Other social media accounts are using humor:

As for schools? Most are closing.

NPR reported:

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.

The Washington Post reported:

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”?

Many communicators tried to explain the weather phenomenon in context.

CBS News reported:

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.

NBC reported:

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

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