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Long johns to short sleeves: Rapid thaw follows polar blast

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Ice and water flows over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.  (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)

CHICAGO (AP) — In Illinois, temperatures could rise by 80 degrees within days. In Michigan, melting snow and rain and a 17-mile ice jam could lead to flooding. Across the Midwest, the sudden warmth was sure to bring more broken roads and busted water mains.

The polar vortex that brought many cities to a standstill was expected to end with a rapid thaw that experts say could be unprecedented. But the sudden swing from long johns to light jackets and short sleeves could create problems of its own.

"I don't think there's ever been a case where we've seen (such a big) shift in temperatures," in the winter, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the Weather Underground firm. "Past record-cold waves have not dissipated this quickly. ... Here we are going right into spring-like temperatures."

On Thursday, the system marched east, spreading arctic conditions over an area from Buffalo to Brooklyn. In western New York, a storm that dumped up to 20 inches of snow (51 centimeters) gave way to subzero temperatures and face-stinging wind chills. In New York City, about 200 firefighters battling a blaze in a commercial building took turns getting warm on buses. The number of deaths that could be blamed on the cold climbed to at least 15.

For the nation's midsection, relief was as close as the weekend.

Rockford, Illinois, was at a record-breaking minus 31 (minus 35 Celsius) on Thursday morning but should be around 50 (10 Celsius) on Monday. Other previously frozen areas could see temperatures of 55 (13 Celsius) or higher.

The dramatic warm-up will offer a respite from the bone-chilling cold that canceled school, closed businesses and halted trains. But potholes will appear on roads and bridges weakened by the freeze-thaw cycle. The same cycle can crack water mains and homeowners' pipes. Scores of vehicles will be left with flat tires and bent rims.

Joe Buck, who manages Schmit Towing in Minneapolis and spent about 20 hours a day outdoors this week responding to stranded vehicle calls, said he's already taking calls for Monday to deal with a backlog of hundreds of stalled vehicles.

"Sunday is going to be 39 degrees ABOVE zero," said Buck, who has had 18 trucks running around the clock in wind chills that dropped to minus 50.

In Detroit, where some water mains are almost 150 years old, city workers were dealing with dozens of breaks, said Palencia Mobley, deputy director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

"We'll have all hands on deck. Hopefully, we'll be able to address as many of the issues as possible over the next week," Mobley said.

The thawing of pipes can sometimes inflict greater damage than the initial freeze. Bursts can occur when ice inside starts to melt and water rushes through the pipe, or when water in the pipe is pushed to a closed faucet by expanding ice.

Elsewhere, a bridge in the western Michigan community of Newaygo, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Grand Rapids was closed as the ice-jammed Muskegon River rose above flood stage. Officials in Buffalo, New York, watched for flooding on the Upper Niagara River because of ice.

In other signs that the worst of the deep freeze was over, Xcel Energy on Thursday lifted a request to its Minnesota natural gas customers to temporarily lower their thermostats to ease concerns about the fuel supply.

Earlier in the day, several cities set new record lows. Rockford saw a record low temperature of minus 31 (minus 35 Celsius), on Thursday. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, set a daily record low of minus 30 degrees (minus 34 Celsius).

Chicago's temperature dropped to a low of around minus 21 degrees (minus 30 Celsius) on Thursday, slightly above the city's lowest-ever reading of minus 27 degrees (minus 32 Celsius) in January 1985. Milwaukee's low was minus 25 degrees (minus 31 Celsius), and Minneapolis recorded minus 24 degrees (minus 31 Celsius). Wind chills were lower still.

In Michigan, efforts to conserve heat during the extreme cold reduced usage by 10 percent following a fire at a major natural gas facility, officials said. Consumers Energy, the state's largest supplier of natural gas, asked its 1.7 million customers and others to set their thermostats at 65 degrees (18 degrees Celsius) or lower until late Thursday.

"In our 130 years, we've never experienced this kind of demand or these kinds of temperatures," CEO Patti Poppe said.

Masters, from Weather Underground, said the polar vortex was "rotating up into Canada" and not expected to return in the next couple of weeks. If it does return in late February, "it won't be as intense."

Still, memories of the dangerous cold were bound to linger.

In Illinois, at least 144 people visited hospital emergency rooms for cold-related injuries over two days. Most of the injuries were hypothermia or frostbite, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health.

The effect on the overall economy was not expected to be that great.

"It only shows up marginally in the economic data," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, who ended up working from home because her offices in Chicago were shut because of weather.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said one reason the severe cold weather will have less impact is that, unlike a hurricane, people did not lose electric power.

"People may be in their homes, but they can do things such as online shopping," Zandi said. "Life goes on. It is a disruption to daily life, but it is not a big hit to the economy."

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For the latest on the weather: https://apnews.com/b805fb74a7db4894834ccbafd6ae0703

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Associated Press Writers Martin Crutsinger in Washington; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; Amy Forliti in Minneapolis; Corey Williams and Ed White in Detroit; Blake Nicholson in Bismarck, North Dakota; and Caryn Rousseau and Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this story.

Snow covers the intersection of Winter and Spring streets in Spring Lake, Michigan, on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. In many parts of the Michigan, this will be the coldest day since 1994, according to the National Weather Service.
Clarence Brown Jr. shovels his driveway in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Subzero temperatures were recorded across the area. (Neil Blake/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)
Frozen Minnehaha Falls is shown Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen)
A pedestrian is covered in his winter wardrobe while walking on Franklin Avenue on a brutally cold Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in downtown Scranton, Pa. (Butch Comegys/The Times-Tribune via AP)
Ice and water flows over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.  (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
Ice covers the observation deck at the base of Horseshoe falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.  (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
Ice and water flows over the American Falls, seen from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.  (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
A morning commuter walks to work as polar vortex temperatures reached a low of minus ten degrees in Johnstown, Pa., Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat via AP)
How potholes form.;
A man walks along the shore of Lake Michigan, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Chicago. A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures on Wednesday, triggering widespread closures of schools and businesses, and prompting the U.S. Postal Service to take the rare step of suspending mail delivery to a wide swath of the region. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
A man walks along the shore of Lake Michigan, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Chicago. A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures on Wednesday, triggering widespread closures of schools and businesses, and prompting the U.S. Postal Service to take the rare step of suspending mail delivery to a wide swath of the region. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Icicles hang in front of a door at a bar in Mequon, Wis. Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019 as temperatures were sub-zero and wind chills were -50 degrees. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Icicles hang in front of a door at a bar in Mequon, Wis. Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019 as temperatures were sub-zero and wind chills were -50 degrees. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Ice and water flows over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.  (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
Ice and water flows over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
Ice and water flows over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.  (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
Ice and water flows over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
Snow covers the intersection of Winter and Spring streets in Spring Lake, Michigan, on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. In many parts of the Michigan, this will be the coldest day since 1994, according to the National Weather Service.
Snow covers the intersection of Winter and Spring streets in Spring Lake, Michigan, on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. In many parts of the Michigan, this will be the coldest day since 1994, according to the National Weather Service. "It is dangerously cold today!," staff in the NWS Grand Rapids office warned early Wednesday. "As of 4 a.m., wind chill readings have fallen to 15 to 30 degrees below zero across most of our area. Wind chill readings will continue to fall to 25 to as much as 45 below zero today, which is dangerously and potentially life threateningly cold." Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday declared a state of emergency over the states dropping temperatures, setting into motion a process that helps the state respond quickly. (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)
Geese huddle in the water as the sun rises at the harbor in Port Washington, Wis., on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Geese huddle in the water as the sun rises at the harbor in Port Washington, Wis., on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
A harbor light is covered by snow and ice on the Lake Michigan at 39th Street Harbor, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Chicago. A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures on Wednesday, triggering widespread closures of schools and businesses, and prompting the U.S. Postal Service to take the rare step of suspending mail delivery to a wide swath of the region. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
A harbor light is covered by snow and ice on the Lake Michigan at 39th Street Harbor, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Chicago. A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures on Wednesday, triggering widespread closures of schools and businesses, and prompting the U.S. Postal Service to take the rare step of suspending mail delivery to a wide swath of the region. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
A morning commuter walks to work as polar vortex temperatures reached a low of minus ten degrees in Johnstown, Pa., Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat via AP)
A morning commuter walks to work as polar vortex temperatures reached a low of minus ten degrees in Johnstown, Pa., Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat via AP)
Clarence Brown Jr. shovels his driveway in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Subzero temperatures were recorded across the area. (Neil Blake/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)
Clarence Brown Jr. shovels his driveway in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Subzero temperatures were recorded across the area. (Neil Blake/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)
A pedestrian is covered in his winter wardrobe while walking on Franklin Avenue on a brutally cold Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in downtown Scranton, Pa. (Butch Comegys/The Times-Tribune via AP)
A pedestrian is covered in his winter wardrobe while walking on Franklin Avenue on a brutally cold Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in downtown Scranton, Pa. (Butch Comegys/The Times-Tribune via AP)
Ice covers the observation deck at the base of Horseshoe falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.  (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
Ice covers the observation deck at the base of Horseshoe falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
Ice and water flows over the American Falls, seen from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.  (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
Ice and water flows over the American Falls, seen from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press via AP)
A photographer sets up his tripod on the shore of Lake Michigan before sunrise, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Chicago. The painfully cold weather system that put much of the Midwest into a historic deep freeze was expected to ease Thursday, though temperatures still tumbled to record lows in some places. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
A photographer sets up his tripod on the shore of Lake Michigan before sunrise, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Chicago. The painfully cold weather system that put much of the Midwest into a historic deep freeze was expected to ease Thursday, though temperatures still tumbled to record lows in some places. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
People enjoy at the Lake Michigan at 31st Street Harbor, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Chicago. A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures on Wednesday, triggering widespread closures of schools and businesses, and prompting the U.S. Postal Service to take the rare step of suspending mail delivery to a wide swath of the region. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
People enjoy at the Lake Michigan at 31st Street Harbor, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Chicago. A deadly arctic deep freeze enveloped the Midwest with record-breaking temperatures on Wednesday, triggering widespread closures of schools and businesses, and prompting the U.S. Postal Service to take the rare step of suspending mail delivery to a wide swath of the region. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Drifting snow obscures a road near Mount Joy in Lancaster County, Pa., on Wednesday Jan. 30, 2019. A bitter deep freeze is moving into the Northeast from the Midwest, sending temperatures plummeting and making road conditions dangerous. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Drifting snow obscures a road near Mount Joy in Lancaster County, Pa., on Wednesday Jan. 30, 2019. A bitter deep freeze is moving into the Northeast from the Midwest, sending temperatures plummeting and making road conditions dangerous. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
How potholes form.;
How potholes form.;
Frozen Minnehaha Falls is shown Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen)
Frozen Minnehaha Falls is shown Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen)