It all started out innocently enough. As the New Year dawned, the Chicago area was blanketed with about 10 inches of snow — a fluffy white powder easy to remove from cars and shovel from walks.

And, anyway, the kids were still home on winter break. Over at the ice rink in Big Ball Park in Riverside, members of the Big Chill Crew cleared away the snow with shovels and blowers. At Swan Pond Park, the sledding hill was jammed with kids (almost all of whom came away uninjured) enjoying the last few days off before school started Monday.

Then on Saturday, the snow started falling again in earnest. When it finally subsided late Sunday, another 10 inches of snow had fallen in advance of what everyone in Chicago and the suburbs would come to know as the “polar vortex,” which plunged the area into record-breaking cold weather — the kind the area hadn’t seen in a generation.

On Monday morning the mercury plummeted to minus-16 degrees, eclipsing the old Jan. 6 record low temperature of minus-14 set in 1988. Everything ground to a halt.

Everything, of course, except the U.S. Mail. As winds made him feel every part of wind-chill factors registering between 30 and 50 degrees below zero, mail carrier Bruce Young trudged along Longcommon Road in Riverside with his letter bag looped over his shoulder.

“It’s bad,” said Young, “but the only thing I’m having trouble with is my hands. If the wind would just stop, it’d be OK.”

Young has been walking routes in Riverside for the past 28 years and said he can’t remember a deep freeze like this one. On Monday, Young wore several layers of clothing, including a hooded sweatshirt tied so tightly his face could only be seen through a three-inch circle that allowed him to see where he was going.

He said he could stand about a half-hour at a stretch outside before having to head back to his mail van to warm up.

“It’s never been colder than this,” said Young, who narrowly missed the all-time record low in Chicago of minus-27, which was set in 1985.

But Young was upbeat and looking forward to the rest of January, cold weather and all.

“I’m retiring January 31,” he said.

All of the elementary schools in Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside were closed on both Monday and Tuesday, adding two days to the kids’ winter break. Both Riverside-Brookfield High School and Lyons Township High School shut their doors as well for both days, while the public libraries in Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside closed Monday.

The North Riverside Village Board, which was scheduled to meet Monday night, canceled. In Brookfield, garbage hauling services were suspended Monday and were to resume Tuesday on a holiday schedule. Riverside delayed its Tuesday garbage pickup until Wednesday.

Even Brookfield Zoo announced it would be closing to the general public on Monday. Apart from the bison and polar bears, animals were inside away from the cold while crews worked to clear the snow from the walkways in the park.

Until 2008, the zoo hadn’t closed since it opened in 1934. Since 2008, it has been forced to shut down four times, including on Feb. 2, 2011 when a blizzard dumped more than 20 inches of snow on the area. 

“The bison and polar bears really seemed to be enjoying it,” said zoo spokeswoman Sondra Katzen.

Elsewhere, life forms of any sort were hard to spot, unless they were driving vehicles, and traffic was lighter than usual.

But the public works departments in all three villages were working at full capacity since late on Dec. 31 when the first snow began to fall. Their workload intensified over the weekend as more snow and temperatures fell.

Riverside’s three snowplow drivers logged 20 hours apiece over the weekend, said Public Works Director Edward Bailey. On both Sunday and Monday, the snowplow crew arrived at work at 3 a.m. to clear the snow- and ice-covered streets. Another two-man crew cleared the train platform, parking lots and sidewalks in the central business district.

In Brookfield, Public Works Director Dan Kaup split his 18-person department into two shifts. Starting late on Dec. 31, each shift worked 16 hours before transitioning to 12 hour shifts through the weekend.

During that entire period, said Kaup, snow removal was a 24-hour per day operation. As the snow ended Monday, Kaup said snow removal crews would be clearing alley entrances for vehicles, removing large piles of snow from various spots in the village, and rounding out intersections.

Brookfield has already used up about half of its road salt supply, about 600 tons, but has ordered another 400 tons. Kaup says he’s been in the public works arena since 1998, and has never experienced anything like the past week.

“The craziness has been the duration of the snow,” said Kaup. “There’s been no time in my [career] where it’s snowed so consistently for several days and then have temperatures so low that you can’t melt it.”

Tim Kutt, the public works director in North Riverside, began his career in 1983 and remembers the last deep freeze.

“It reminds me of 25 years ago,” said Kutt. “I’ve seen a few of these already.”

North Riverside’s snow removal crew of eight people worked 12- to 13-hour shifts per day, said Kutt. Snow plows traveled in four-truck teams on the state highways bordering the village, clearing snow away in one pass.

By Monday, North Riverside’s crew was laying down a base of salt, hauling snow out of alleys in preparation for Friday garbage pickup and clearing out frozen-over catch basins in preparation for the next weather event on the horizon — rain.

“They’re talking temperatures in the upper 30s and rain on Friday and Saturday,” said Kutt. “We need to make sure everything is open so they can take water before it freezes again.”