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U.S. freeze: Deaths reported, lawsuit over unheated jail

Digital writers

Monday, February 4, 2019, 4:49 PM - Recent record-breaking cold temperatures across central and eastern North American regions are bringing attention to winter-preparedness, and the dangerous challenges that frigid weather brings.

The infamous polar vortex was at work across much of North America through the latter half of January, allowing bitterly cold air from the Arctic to flood down across the Great Lakes and into the northern U.S. 

When disrupted from its usual location, the vortex, a centre of low pressure that typically spins closer to the North Pole, is well-known for bringing record-cold to the eastern half of North America, and this event was no exception, with wind chill values as low as the minus 60s (minus 51.1oC) across some parts of the Midwest, and into the minus 30s (minus 34.4oC) in the Northeast.

Read below to see the challenges that many are facing throughout the Midwest and the Northeast: 


Videos of the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal jail in Brooklyn, New York, went viral when it emerged that inmates had gone without heating for several days.

The federal Bureau of Prisons released an email statement that confirmed the jail was "experiencing a partial power outage" and functioning on emergency power, which left many cells without lighting and heat. Over 1,600 inmates are housed in the jail and videos on social media showed inmates banging on exterior-facing walls and windows, yelling, and flashing lights, to signal the need for help as temperatures dropped to dangerously cold temperatures. 

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures on January 31, which is when videos of the panicking inmates started appearing on social media, nearby Central Park reached 2oF (minus 16.5oC), which is just shy of the all time cold record which is minus 1oF (minus 18oC). 

CNN reports a representative that visited the facility says the temperature was as low as 49oF (9.4oC) in the jail, and that the heat has been sporadic and uneven. 

The power was restored by Monday this week, but the facility faced severe criticism and calls for an investigation from many quarters -- including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo -- and on Monday the Federal Defenders of New York filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as the prison's warden. 


The Midwest is also facing the bitterly cold weather, and even saw temperatures comparable to those in Antarctica, Mount Everest, and Siberia. 

On January 30 the city reached its fourth-lowest temperature record of minus 23oF (minus 30.5oC), which caused troubles for the national railroad system.

Severe delays were caused after rails broke in three different places from Baltimore to Washington on January 31, and the iced-over steel rails in Chicago were threatening more stress for commuters. The solution? Lighting the tracks on fire. See it, below: 

Despite the startling scene that caused panic for many, this strategy has been used over the past two centuries to prevent moving locomotive parts from freezing. The open-flame heaters are deployed after the local fire departments have been notified, and help prevent the steel tracks from being damaged in the extreme cold.  


There have been a growing number of fatalities that are related to the extreme cold throughout the northern region of the U.S. mainland.

There have been at least 21 deaths related to icy conditions, and the deadly cold snap has impacted people of all ages - an 18 year old University of Iowa student was found frozen to death on campus when temperatures were minus 55oF (minus 48.3oC) with the windchill, and a 90 year old woman was found dead after accidentally locking herself out of her home while feeding birds in southwestern Michigan, where temperatures were minus 15oF (minus 26.1oC). 

A 69 year old FedEx employee was found dead between two semitrailers at a FedEx delivery hub in East Moline, Illinois on January 31, when the temperature reached a record low of minus 33oF (minus 36.1oC). 

"We are saddened by the loss of our team member and our sympathies go out to his family and friends," FedEx said in a statement that was released on February 1.

"FedEx has contingency plans in place to ensure the well-being of our team members and service providers. Several of our centers, including the Rock Island center, were closed or running very limited operations this week due to the extreme cold."

The beginning of February coincided with a thaw of the frigid cold for many in the Midwest and Northeast, and while many welcomed the warm-up with open arms, locations that received heavy snowfall are now facing flooding risks. As the warm front tracks out of these regions, the chilly weather will make its return for the rest of the month. 


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