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As wind chills climb above zero during Wednesday warmup in Chicago, electric vehicle owners scramble to charge their cars

While Chicagoans woke up Wednesday with wind chills below zero, the region experienced a brief “warmup” that’s expected to last until Thursday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.

Wind chills will climb into the single digits and teens into Thursday afternoon, the weather service said. By Thursday night, it predicts another period of below-zero wind chills that will continue through Sunday morning.

“A moderate increase in temperatures today can help improve things, but at the same time it’s still cold out there. It’s January in Chicago,” said David King, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Romeoville.

Electric vehicle owners struggle with low temps

The lull was a welcome reprieve for some electric vehicle owners. Teslas use more energy in the cold to heat the battery and cabin, according to the company. The increased energy consumption left many drivers with dying batteries and longer waits at charging stations during the cold snap.

On Wednesday afternoon, a dozen Teslas lined the fifth floor of a South Loop parking garage equipped with chargers. While most drivers didn’t have to wait in line, many remained frustrated after a weekend of freezing temperatures.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Chernara Baker, a dentist from the South Shore. “It’s a California car. There just aren’t enough charging stations in the Midwest.”

When temperatures began dropping, Baker said her partner had to wait two hours at a station. She’s had to charge it every day since. An at-home charger isn’t possible, she said, because she lives in a condo.

Derick Holmes, 42, walked across the parking garage to his Tesla. Over the weekend, he said it took him three hours to charge it each day, calling it a “shock.” When he was at a charging station on Saturday, he witnessed several people’s cars die while waiting in line.

“It makes me regret getting a Tesla,” Holmes said. “They were stuck overnight.”

Across the lot, 20-year-old Afil Alramahi sat in her Tesla with the heat on high. The University of Illinois at Chicago student just bought the car last week.

“Every single time I try to charge it, the wait time is so long,” Alramahi said. “The battery runs out pretty fast, it’s so frustrating.”

Metra addresses rail-service delays

After days of intermittent delays in Metra commuter rail service, CEO Jim Derwinski said Wednesday blowing wind and rapid temperature drops were to blame. Winter weather can wreak havoc on trains when quick changes in temperature can cause steel tracks to fracture, leading to issues for the signals that control the trains.

Fine blowing snow also causes problems for the railroad. The powder can get into nooks in the train cars and engines, then damage electrical systems when it begins to melt once the train is moved to warmer shelter.

As snow swept across the region Friday, and downed power lines near Barrington snarled service on the Union Pacific Northwest Line, about 86% of the commuter rail service’s trains were on time. Monday, as below-zero temperatures gripped the area, the on-time rate dipped to 69%.

Metra takes steps to winterize the system, including lighting fires at switches, where tracks converge, to clear them of ice that can fall off trains or the fine snow that can blow into the tracks.

“Overall, the system did very well,” Derwinski told board members. “We did take a lot of delays over the last five days. The equipment performed very well.”

On Monday, cold weather-related mechanical issues were partly to blame for Metra’s low on-time performance, spokesman Michael Gillis said. Metra also encountered problems with Amtrak’s signals and switches at Union Station, which is used by both train services.

A minor BNSF train derailment at Union Station further snarled service, and Metra was operating with speed restrictions because of the cold. Also, rails broke on four Metra lines, which can happen when extreme cold causes steel to contract, Gillis said.

Snow in the forecast

More snow was expected this week. Some parts of northern Illinois and northwest Indiana may see 1 to 3 inches of snow Wednesday night. A more widespread snowfall of 1 to 3 inches is expected Thursday night.

King said he’s moderately confident that snow will fall north of I-80. He added it’s possible that snow would fall in Chicago but miss Gary, for example.

“A little bit of fluctuation with the exact forecast, but we’re not expecting anything to really start snowing until later tonight and in the overnight hours,” he said. “Hopefully, most people are indoors and sleeping.”

Snow is likely before noon Thursday, with a chance of flurries between noon and 3 p.m. The high is near 22 with wind speeds of 5 to 10 mph. The weather service predicts wind chill values as low as minus 1 degrees at night.

Severe wind chills can cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 30 minutes, the weather service said. It recommends avoiding outdoor activities if possible and wearing appropriate clothing when venturing outside.

Six people from around Cook County have had cold exposure as a possible, probable or secondary cause of their death since Friday, according to the medical examiner.

At O’Hare International Airport, 83 flights were canceled and 298 were delayed as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the flight tracking service FlightAware. Another 85 flights were canceled at Midway Airport and 33 were delayed.

Chicago Public Schools resumed classes Wednesday after canceling instruction and after-school activities Tuesday because of frigid temperatures. Mayor Brandon Johnson also announced that the enforcement of his 60-day migrant shelter limit policy would be delayed until at least Monday.

The weather service also warned that ice will be seen on almost all local rivers this week, leading to an increased risk of ice jams, which can cause significant water level fluctuations with little to no warning. Flood warnings are in effect for the Kankakee River near downstate Wilmington and the Illinois River from Ottawa downstream to beyond the LaSalle/Peru area.

The Will County Emergency Management Agency said flash flooding has occurred along the Kankakee since Monday, advising residents along the river to be “prepared for rapidly changing conditions.” They said they’re working with other local agencies to help evacuate residents in impacted areas.

rjohnson@chicagotribune.com

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karmanini@chicagotribune.com