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Crews clear piles of snow from West Fifth Street in downtown Waterloo on Wednesday.

Polar blast grips Midwest, strains aging infrastructure

CHICAGO — A blast of polar air enveloped much of the Midwest on Wednesday, cracking train rails, breaking water pipes and straining electrical systems with some of the lowest temperatures in a generation.

At least eight deaths were linked to the system.

The deep freeze closed schools and businesses and canceled flights in the nation’s third-largest city, which was as cold as the Arctic. Heavily dressed repair crews hustled to keep utilities from failing.

Chicago dropped to a low of around minus 23, slightly above the city’s lowest-ever reading of minus 27 from January 1985. Milwaukee had similar conditions. Minneapolis recorded minus 27. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, saw minus 25.

Wind chills reportedly made it feel like minus 50 or worse. Downtown Chicago streets were largely deserted after most offices told employees to stay home. Trains and buses operated with few passengers. The hardiest commuters ventured out only after covering nearly every square inch of flesh against the extreme chill, which froze ice crystals on eyelashes and eyebrows in minutes.

The Postal Service took the rare step of suspending mail delivery in many places, and in southeastern Minnesota, even the snowplows were idled by the weather.

The bitter cold was the result of a split in the polar vortex, a mass of cold air that normally stays bottled up in the Arctic. The split allowed the air to spill much farther south than usual. In fact, Chicago was colder than the Canadian village of Alert, one of the world’s most northerly inhabited places. Alert, which is 500 miles from the North Pole, reported a temperature that was a couple of degrees higher.

Officials in dozens of cities focused on protecting vulnerable people such as the homeless, seniors and those living in substandard housing.

At least eight deaths were linked to the system, including an elderly Illinois man who was found several hours after he fell trying to get into his home and a University of Iowa student found behind an academic hall several hours before dawn. Elsewhere, a man was struck by a snowplow in the Chicago area, a young couple’s SUV struck another on a snowy road in northern Indiana and a Milwaukee man froze to death in a garage, authorities said.

Temperatures in Chicago were expected to tumble again into the minus 20s early today. Some isolated areas could see as low as minus 40, according to the National Weather Service. Daytime highs could climb into the single digits before warming up to the comparatively balmy 20s by Friday.

The system’s icy grip also took a heavy toll on infrastructure, halting transportation, knocking out electricity and interrupting water service.

At least 2,700 flights were canceled nationwide, more than half of them at Chicago’s two main airports. Another 1,800 flights scheduled for Thursday were also called off. Fuel lines at O’Hare Airport froze, forcing some planes to refuel elsewhere before continuing to their destination, an airport spokeswoman said.

Amtrak canceled scores of trains to and from Chicago, one of the nation’s busiest rail hubs.

Chicago commuter trains that rely on electricity were also shut down after the metal wires that provide their power contracted, throwing off connections.

Ten diesel-train lines in the Metra network kept running, but crews had to heat vital switches with gas flames and watched for rails that were cracked or broken. When steel rails break or even crack, trains are automatically halted until they are diverted or the section of rail is repaired, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis explained.

A track in the Minneapolis light-rail system also cracked, forcing trains to share the remaining track for a few hours.

In Detroit, more than two dozen water mains froze. Customers were connected to other mains to keep water service from being interrupted, Detroit Water and Sewerage spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said.

Thousands of utility customers were without electricity after high winds also caused trees and branches to fall into power lines, especially in the south Chicago suburbs. The ComEd utility in northern Illinois said crews restored power to more than 42,000 customers and were working to restore another 9,400.

About 5,000 Duke Energy customers in central Indiana lost power due to high heating demand that tripped circuits. Another outage affecting 1,000 customers was reported near Kokomo, Indiana, about 40 miles north of Indianapolis.

UPDATE: Prosecutors: Sterling Koehn 'unloved, uncared for' before death (PHOTOS)

LE MARS — Items needed to keep Sterling Koehn alive and healthy were found in the Alta Vista apartment where he lived with his parents and older sister, according to sheriff’s investigators.

Sterling was found dead in a maggot-infested swing seat Aug. 30, 2017. An autopsy determined he died of malnutrition, dehydration and infection from diaper rash, according to prosecutors in the trial of his mother, 21-year-old Cheyanne Harris.

Harris is charged with murder and child endangerment causing death, and testimony began Wednesday in the Plymouth County Courthouse in Le Mars, where the trial had been moved on a venue change.

Prosecutor Coleman McAllister told jurors it wasn’t a case of a family that didn’t have the resources or the parental experience to care for a baby.

“Evidence in this case will show Sterling suffered in the last hours and days before his death,” McAllister said. He said the baby had been left “unloved, uncared for, unaided by his mother” who was in the next room.

Defense attorney Nichole Watt said Harris isn’t a monster.

“The monster in this case is mental health. The monster in this case is depression,” Watt told jurors.

Harris’ attorneys filed notification they may use a diminished responsibility defense and have scheduled witnesses that include a psychologist and an expert in postpartum depression.

Chickasaw County sheriff’s deputies said they found everything needed to care for the child inside the small apartment.

Deputy Jason Rosol told jurors he found new diapers, bundled in rubber bands as if received as a gift, in the same room where Sterling died in the urine-soaked swing wearing a diaper that hadn’t been changed in more than a week. A tube of baby ointment, which could be used to treat diaper rash, was also found in the room, Rosol said.

A baby bottle with milk or formula starting to separate was found near the swing, he said.

And, in a kitchen cupboard over the sink, there were two cans of formula.

“The blue Similac up front, I found that to be about three-quarters full, and then the orange one that’s in the back is kind of an off-label for sensitivity, that was more like a third full,” Rosol said.

Rosol said he also found a Hy-Vee supermarket receipt in Harris’ purse showing $123.53 worth of purchases Aug. 26, 2017, four days before the 911 call.

The couple’s almost 2-year-old daughter appeared healthy, according to witnesses at the apartment.

Chief Deputy Reed Palo said he talked briefly with Harris at the scene, and she told him she had fed the baby about 4 ounces the prior night. She said she then fed the daughter and did chores.

He said Harris also told him Sterling hadn’t been to the hospital for a checkup since he was born, and she told him she had been on medication for postpartum depression after her daughter was born but quit taking it because it made her sick.

Palo said Harris was crying but was able to answer questions and didn’t appear to be under the influence of drugs.

Harris left the courtroom sobbing as prosecutors showed jurors photos of the lifeless child in a swing seat. Her tears triggered a break in her trial.

Otherwise, she remained quiet. She kept her head down and in her hands most of the time, and at one point had to be asked to remove her hand so a witness could identify her.

The state’s first witnesses included a nurse who was first on the scene following the 911 call.

Toni Friedrich told jurors she had expected to perform CPR but found the baby was beyond help.

Several witnesses recounted how the apartment smelled, odors of urine and feces and decay that only got worse when they entered the back bedroom.

“In that room, it was like you didn’t want to breathe,” Palo said.

They also talked about finding Sterling’s blanket and swing seat drenched in urine, and noticing maggots in the clothing and on the child and small flies that took to the air when disturbed.

The witnesses described the parents as unemotional.

“There were no tears, there was no emotion,” said Tina Shatek, a mail carrier with first-responder training who followed Friedrich into the apartment. “She should have been crying and screaming and upset.”

She said Harris told her the child was fine when she fed him at 9:30 p.m. the night before. Shatek said she asked Harris if she meant 9:30 “that morning” because a 4-month-old would need to be fed sooner than the night before. Harris didn’t respond, Shatek said.

After law enforcement arrived, Shatek returned to her postal rounds. She said she had to throw up.

“It was so sad. Had I known that child was there, all that time, every day I drove by, I could have done something. And that day, I was just too late,” Shatek said.