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After 52 hours below zero, it’s safe to go outside again, Chicago

A woman covers her face with her gloved hands to stay warm, in The Loop, Friday afternoon, while temperatures were well below freezing, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago, it’s safe to go outside again.

After 2 1/2 days of sub-zero temperatures that broke records in some suburbs and Illinois cities — and came close in at least one spot in the city — the city is coming out of its deep, deep freeze. Even though mother nature greeted residents with snow as things warmed up Thursday into Friday, many breathed a sigh of relief that the city, it appeared, survived the life-threatening cold.

“For a city of nearly 3 million people with a cold snap of this magnitude, it didn’t end up too bad,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Kevin Donofrio. “At least it looks like people headed the warnings.”

Temperatures were expected to rise through the weekend, with a high downtown Saturday of about 37 degrees, possibly bringing rain or freezing drizzle, according to the National Weather Service. It’s expected to be warmer still Sunday, with highs about 40 degrees.

On Friday, things are expected to more or less return to normal, with the CTA, Metra, Amtrak saying things would operate as normal except for one or two lines. The airports expected to see more flights get out of town after more than 1,700 were canceled Thursday. Courts, schools and businesses that had shuttered for two days planned to reopen, although Friday was already a scheduled day off for Chicago Public Schools students. Mail delivery will resume.

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Signs of life returned around the city Thursday, as more people ventured outside and faces began to reappear from behind tightly would scarves and some even dared to briefly remove gloves or venture outside without a hat.

For the record, the subzero temps lasted from 6 p.m. Tuesday to 10 p.m Thursday, the weather service said. The 52 hours below zero is the fourth-longest streak ever.

The lowest the mercury hit in Chicago was minus 23 at O’Hare Airport early Wednesday, which was officially the fifth coldest on record. One observer who provides unofficial readings to the National Weather Service saw a reading of minus 22 on Thursday morning, which was the second coldest ever recorded at that location, which is three miles southwest of Midway Airport.

Records were broken in two suburbs: Northwest suburban Barrington, which saw temperatures of 28 below Thursday, and Mundelein — about 12 miles northeast of there — went down to minus 26.

And in Rockford, temperatures reached 31 degrees below zero, an all-time record for the coldest temperature since the city started keeping track in 1905, the National Weather Service said. Downstate Dwight also set a record at minus 22.

No confirmed cold-related deaths

For all the attention given to the cold snap, the city fared OK as the brutally cold mass of air — the Polar Vortex — moved through, garnering headlines around the world.

As of Thursday evening, there were no reports of deaths due to the weather stretching back to the start of sub-zero temps Tuesday evening, although autopsy reports at the Cook County medical examiner’s office were still pending.

Other cold-related injuries were also at a minimum, city officials said at a news conference at the Salvation Army Freedom Center on the West Side.

“The numbers really have not been that high, and the hospitals are still able to accept patients. So they are not overwhelmed,” said Dr. Julie Morita, commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Health.

Six people were hospitalized with “severe” frostbite at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, said Jim Ritter, a hospital spokesman.

“Patients hospitalized at Loyola for severe frostbite are at risk of losing tissue, such as fingers, toes or the tip of the nose,” Ritter said

At Rush University Medical Center on the Near West Side, there were two cold-related injuries — one for frostbite, the other hypothermia — during the cold snap, said hospital spokesman Charlie Jolie.

“Neither one was admitted,” Jolie said. “We’ve had a few dozen people who’ve come to the Rush [emergency room] to warm up and we’ve sheltered them and fed them.”

City of big hearts

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, while cautioning that “we’re not out of the woods yet,” praised regular Chicago folks for pulling together over the past few days.

“There are people who are hosting parties, potlucks, play dates, sleepovers and showing that the city of big shoulders is also the city of big hearts,” the mayor said.

Some of the aid came from outside the city after a suburban Los Angeles girl, 11-year-old Khloe Thompson, started a GoFundMe to help Chicago’s homeless. Her campaign began quietly Tuesday night, but by Thursday evening had brought in more than $55,000 donated by 1,600 good Samaritans.

Other good deeds came from efforts closer to home.

On the South Side, more than 100 homeless people were given shelter for most of the week at Amber Inn, a Bronzeville hotel.
Candace Payne, a 34-year-old real estate developer from Auburn Gresham, paid for the rooms for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Hyde Park resident Sheri Edwards,  along with South Side pastor Bill Brown and Dolton minister William Fleshman, are now picking up the bill for Friday night and are expecting to collect enough money to pay for the homeless to stay on Saturday night.
“I was just elated because in 20 years of being a manager here … I’ve worked with people who are homeless, but never anything of this magnitude,” said Amber Inn manager Robin Smith. “I’ve never seen this before. It brought tears to my eyes.”

Contributing: Taylor Hartz, Luke Wilusz