News outlets will stop punning when hell freezes over. In fact, they won’t even stop then, as we found out this week when the lakes of Hell, Michigan turned to ice.
The residents of one of the coldest towns in the United States have been battling bone-chilling -26C temperatures as well as the demonic word play, but they have the patience of saints.
Hell is about an hour’s drive west of Detroit, tucked between the four Great Lakes — Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie — to the east of Chicago and west of Toronto. The views of vast, frozen lakes and frosted fields on the flight into the region are breathtaking, but the deadly polar vortex has been wreaking destruction as it moves east across the US.
At least 21 deaths have been linked to the polar vortex sweeping America’s Midwest and Northeast, including a nine-year-old killed in a crash on Iowa’s icy roads, a 75-year-old man hit by a snow plough in Illinois and an 18-year-old college student found unconscious outside on the University of Iowa campus. The mercury plunged to what’s thought to be a historic low of -39C for the state of Illinois and the lowest recorded temperature was a frosty -48.8C in Cotton, Minnesota on Thursday.
The wind chill in Hell this week was placed at -34C, and its 800 residents were just beginning to emerge on Friday after battening down the hatches during days of blizzard-like conditions.
Hell Hole diner and Screams from Hell souvenir store and “creamatory” had just reopened on Friday, after treacherous conditions made roads almost impassable.
“It was just too cold to open up,” Screams from Hell manager Kim Jahn tells news.com.au. “We didn’t even leave the house. We live on the lake here and it was completely frozen over.
“If we don’t have to go out, we don’t. We stay at home, watch movies, eat soup, have chilli cook-offs.
“Sometimes it takes days to clear the roads. There are plenty of people here who couldn’t leave their home or go to work because they live on the hills and they can’t get down. Or if they get down, they can’t get back up, and they have to throw sand across the road just to get a couple of feet.”
‘IT FEELS NEVERENDING’
Hell Saloon is the one business that didn’t close down during the brutal chill of this week, with five locals sat propping up the bar on Friday afternoon, looking as though they wouldn’t mind being snowed in.
“A little bit of whisky goes a long way when it’s cold out,” bartender Emmy Shelton, 29, tells news.com.au. “Our cook’s car wouldn’t start but we were like, we’re going without you, sorry.”
Ms Shelton and her husband — who works in construction and hasn’t earned a cent all week — have been putting towels around the doors of their old farm house in an effort to keep it warm and layering blankets on the beds.
“I lot of people were like, ‘I’m not leaving my house but I was like, I am, my house is freezing,’” laughs the mother of one. “I resorted to booze.”
It’s the coldest winter she can remember, with forecasters warning this could be the iciest spell in a generation.
“Now it’s freezing cold and now we’re getting all this snow, it’s like, is it going to end come Easter, are we going to have winter into April? It just feels like a neverending thing now.”
John Roberts, who works in grounds maintenance for Domino’s Farms, says he’s been to Mexico and Florida this winter. “The older I get, the more I hate this s***,” adds the 43-year-old.
“It’s tough right now, I’m getting older, I’m 61,” says Cindy Lou, who has spent her whole life in Hell.
“You guys are hotter than hell, we’re colder than hell, we’re colder than cold,” says retired bricklayer Karl Fritz, 62. “I could adjust to that, the cold you can’t adjust to.
“What we do is this to warm up. I had a Bud Light, then I went to vodka. You gotta have that. To walk to the mailbox takes the air away from you … It’ll burn your lungs.”
A COLD DAY IN HELL
“I used to drive through hell to go to work, now I drive to Hell,” jokes the town’s groundskeeper Jerry Duffie, who knows every pun in the book.
“I have friends that are schoolteachers and their students always laugh about them being the teachers from Hell. We sell postcards — ‘I’ve been through Hell’ with edges singed, people send off taxes and alimony payments from here.
“Hell Hole bar was Hell’s Kitchen and Hell in a Handbasket. We sort of roll our eyes because we hear them all. Someone will walk in, ‘oh, it’s hotter than Hell today,’ you know, we all kind of chuckle and go along with it.”
As if to prove his point, a woman interrupts to tell us that when you move to nearby Gregory you have to quit telling your husband to go to Hell.
But the big freeze is no laughing matter. Just this week, an elderly couple were found dead in their driveway in Cedarville, Michigan, and a 70-year-old man was apparently frozen to death outside his home in Detroit. Locals say it is vitally important to check on pensioners, particularly since there have been issues with power.
One of the state’s biggest natural gas providers suffered an explosion this week, causing a crisis when combined with the high demand for power, and prompting Michigan’s state governor to urge residents to turn down their heating to 18C max.
“We’re so dependent on this stuff and how much do we have left?” says Robin Sanders, from nearby Ann Abor. “It’s scary.
“My wife was told not to go work Wednesday and Thursday — she’s a dietitian in a prison — for the first time 30 years.
“The cars look like glazed donuts from all the salt. Cars that spend most days of their life in the Midwest, the salt eats them up. It’s very corrosive.”
Emergency services have issued warnings about the “life-threatening”, “dangerous” weather, advising residents to stay indoors, avoid driving and try not to breathe too deeply, a serious challenge as the cold wind makes you puff and pant.
The news is filled with tips on how to survive the bitter weather, from hand-warmers and an icy street shuffle to doses of vitamin C and socks made from fire hoses. As a New York resident of one year, I have learnt some basics. A long down coat is essential, as is a scarf, hat, gloves, snow boots and two pairs of thick socks. Thermal underwear is useful and fleece-lined tights a genius invention.
My housemate, who has lived in Chicago, offers next-level advice for the icier Midwest. Plastic surgical gloves under your normal pair will keep in the heat. I give that a miss but take her advice that three is the magic number of layers under your coat. Bundled up until I am almost spherical, I swelter at New York’s La Guardia Airport, but within minutes of arriving in the depths of Hell, my toes turn numb.
INSIDE THE POLAR VORTEX
While Donald Trump seized the opportunity this week to question how the world could be warming if temperatures were hitting record lows, scientists said the freakishly cold conditions were also a result of climate change.
The extreme weather — and polar opposite to the record heat and drought in Australia — has been attributed to warmer air weakening the jet stream in the North Pole, meaning icy winds can push downwards to lower latitudes than usual: in this case, the north of the US.
The Midwesterners who speak with news.com.au say this is one of the toughest cold spells they have experienced, some say it is the worst.
Evidence of an infrastructure nearing breaking point is everywhere.
The postal service was suspended to many areas, more than 2000 flights cancelled and schools and government offices closed across the Midwest. Transport authorities were even setting fire to rail tracks in Iowa to allow trains to run.
Chicago was dubbed “Chiberia” as the mercury plummeted to -29C, just short of the city’s -32C record, and 1400 flights and hundreds of trains into and out of the city were cancelled. “Warming centres” were opened and the city sent out buses to pick up anyone sleeping rough.
In New York, police have been shepherding homeless people into the subway to stop them from dying on the streets.
A local car repairman in Hell says he regularly has to assist broken down or struggling snow ploughs.
For someone who’s spent much of the past decade in Sydney and has never experienced more than a few degrees below freezing, this is a brutal test of character.
Trudging through deep snowdrifts and stepping gingerly on to a frozen lake with Jerry’s encouragement, I focus on breathing into my scarf, rubbing my arms and legs and hopping from foot to foot if forced to stand still. I’ve even taking to humming like a crazy person, although I’m not sure this is among the sanctioned warming methods.
The guardians of Hell may be able to handle this kind of torment, but I think I’d take Australia’s intense heat any day of the week. After all, it’s true what they say: it’s better the devil you know.