CHICAGO — The polar vortex battered the Midwest Wednesday. The extreme temperatures left at least eight dead, kept hundreds of thousands of workers and students home, and strained infrastructure for a huge swath of the country.
But for many Chicagoans, Wednesday was just another day — albeit a historically cold one — of living a life in which staying home was not a reasonable option.
Luke Walters, 42, a rideshare driver, started his workday shortly after midday, packing his lunch sack to fortify him for eight hours of driving. The former cabdriver, who also works as a seismologist, was momentarily concerned his best intentions would be thwarted when his Ford Explorer started with a metallic rattle in the skin-burning cold.
Skipping work Wednesday, on a day when Chicago’s wind chill dipped to minus 52 degrees, didn’t cross his mind.
“If there are people out there who are working or having to get places, I should be working too,” said Walters, as he weaved his way through a frozen Chicagoland.
His phone rang moments after turning on his Uber app with his first fare. Minutes later, he picked up a middle-aged man named Albert who was carrying a portable car battery charger.
Albert was only in the car a few minutes, but managed to tell Walters about his wife’s stalled car. He didn’t think the battery was the problem, but blamed all the high-tech gadgetry of newer model cars.
“All these sensors in these cars don’t know what to do when it gets this cold,” said the exasperated passenger, who patted Walters on the shoulder and told him to stay safe in the blistering cold.
The hardiest who ventured out of their homes in the nation’s third-largest city faced extreme conditions.
Chicago hung around minus 20 degrees for much of Wednesday morning. The city’s lowest-ever reading was minus 27 in January 1985.
The weather certainly tested the Chicagoland area, which saw commuter rail service disrupted, more than 1,500 flights canceled, and temporarily left thousands of utility customers without electricity after high winds caused trees and branches to fall into power lines.
As the mercury plummeted this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged residents to stay home if they could.
For some, that wasn't easy.
As Walters drove through the city’s West Side, he got hailed by a young woman in the middle of the city’s Austin neighborhood, an area that's been bedeviled by chronic poverty for decades.
When he arrived at the destination — a Catholic Charities service office — a shivering young woman in a thin black jacket was waiting. She didn’t have a hat and was holding a couple of plastic bags of groceries.
“Some people have no choice but to go outside today,” Walters said.
Soon, his phone chirped again.
Brenda Rojas, 20, was supposed to get a ride from her sister, but the car did not sound right when they started it, so she decided to hail a ride.
Rojas said it was business-as-usual at her gig at a doggy daycare and boarding house in the city’s posh West Loop. A lifelong Chicagoan, Rojas said she scoffed on the few occasions school was canceled when she was a kid.
“This weather is different,” Rojas said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
Derrick Washington, 42, a carpenter, said he was cold, tired and hungry when Walters picked him up, as well a co-worker, outside their factory on the city’s near West Side.
Washington said he and his fellow workers were facing a tight deadline on a project, so skipping work was out of the question. The factory remained frigid as dock doors had to be repeatedly opened to bring in supplies.
Though exhausted, Washington said he was happy it was just another work day.
“If I was sitting at home, I’d be doing nothing and wishing I was at work,” he said.
Washington will get to do it again Thursday with perhaps warmer weather: A high of 2 degrees is in the forecast.