January 4, 2013

Arctic blast numbs central Maine residents

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Judy Colomy has found a way to stay warm in bone-chilling temperatures.

click image to enlarge

WATER SPOUT: Gardiner Water District Superintendent Paul Gray, left, and employee Jeff Minchin prepare to repair a leaking line Thursday January 3, 2013 in Gardiner. An old service line broke, Gray said, flooding a basement. Cold weather was not the cause of leak, according to Gray, but "these never seem to happen in July."

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

click image to enlarge

PERFECT ICE CONDITIONS: Augusta Parks, Cemeteries & Trees employee Rich Wurpel coats the Calumet Playground rink with a coat of ice as temperatures hover near 0 F. Thursday January 3, 2013 in Augusta. Crews were skimming the rink in sub-zero temperatures to build a base of ice for skaters this winter.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Surviving the cold

Mike Douglas, an outdoor survival expert at the Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta, said that knowing how to beat the cold can be a matter of life and death, especially for those who plan to spend time outside alone. Douglas said hypothermia sets in after a prolonged period of exposure, Once the body’s temperature goes below a certain threshold, it can be almost impossible to bring it back up without intervention.

His advice includes:

• Plan to make your time outside short, and let someone know when you plan to come back. If a person doesn’t come back when he’s supposed to, a search should be started as soon as possible. Sometimes less than four hours of exposure can lead to deadly hypothermia.

• Dress in three layers. The inside layer should be a wicking material, not cotton, that takes moisture away from the body. The second, insulating, layer should contain a lot of air space. “The poofier the better,” Douglas said. His personal favorite is wool, which he said is natural and can protect even when wet. The outer layer should be a breathable shell, like Goretex.

• Carry a spare pair of mittens. When your fingers get cold, swap your mittens.

• While outside, don’t wait until the cold is debilitating. “Head in as soon as you start to feel cold, especially if you have nothing else to put on.”

• “If your feet are cold, get off the ice and stand on the snow. If you’re on the snow, get off the snow and stand on some hemlock boughs.” Much of the body’s heat is lost through conduction, so contact with dense material like ice leaches away heat faster than snow or branches.

• Keep moving. “The worst thing you can do is sit down and curl into a ball. If you have to curl up, don’t do it where anything is going to leach away heat.”

• The signs of hypothermia are similar to those of dehydration. Douglas calls them the “umbles” — if someone starts to stumble, fumble in an uncoordinated way, mumble or grumble, he may be suffering from hypothermia and not realize it.
— Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

“I beat the odds with a heating blanket and a kitty cat that spoons with me,” said Colomy, a 1979 Cony High School graduate who volunteers at the Augusta Community Warming Center on Water Street.

The center, open every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., has seen a spike in visitors looking for a place to stay warm this week as temperatures have plunged to subzero and the single digits, even in the daylight hours.

More than 50 people visited the city warming center on Wednesday, a record, said Rob Shore, director. He arrived mid-morning on Thursday with dozens of plastic bags filled with clothes donated by local car dealer Charlie Shuman and his wife, Nancy.

After a brief respite today — temperatures near 32 degrees are predicted — another blast is on the way for the weekend, said National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Sinsabaugh.

"There's a fairly decent Arctic air mass settled over us," he said. "You don't see it coming out of Florida."

Colomy and others sorted the clothes — fleece-lined flannel shirts, hats, jeans, gloves, slippers, dress shirts and more — in a back room so they can be set out in phases when there is a need.

“I expect we’ll see continued high numbers with the cold snap,” he said.

Down the street Thursday, at the Bread of Life Ministries soup kitchen, about a dozen people enjoyed a hot lunch of chicken and gravy, with desserts waiting to be served. There were fewer people than normal on Thursday despite the temperature, because people tend to hunker down when it gets really cold and they usually have more money to spend at the beginning of the month, said Patsy Tessier, kitchen manager.

Aleticia Knox said she eats at the shelter every other day, and volunteers as well. She said she’s been having trouble with the heat and cable in her Sewall Street apartment, so she’s been using the warming shelter, too.

She said that it’s a good idea to have it open for people who want to get warm. “A lot of them are not used to the cold.”

Local charities say that high fuel costs and the poor economy have combined to create a larger need for their warming centers, where people can eat, drink, and socialize in comfort.

Tina Chapman is the president of United Way of Mid-Maine, which operates a warming center on Water Street in Waterville.

She said that the cold snap causes the two dozen or so people who use the center on an average day to stay longer and put off errands.

“They just tend to be there all day,” she said.

In Waterville, the temperatures reached a low of 8 below zero early Thursday morning. By 9 a.m., it had warmed to zero degrees. The air was relatively calm, although wind chills did reach a low of 14-below zero on Wednesday night.

Eight below zero is the lowest Jan. 3 temperature in Waterville since 1999, according to Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Hawley said the lowest temperature ever recorded for that date is minus 27, set in 1918.

In Augusta, it was technically warmer than in Waterville, with temperatures hovering around 1 for most of Thursday morning, but stronger winds created a wind chill factor low of 15-below around midnight Wednesday.

Cold precautions

Despite the temperatures, MaineGeneral Medical Center facilities in Augusta and Waterville have yet to see any cases of frostbite, said Scott Kemmerer, medical director of emergency services. He recommended that people dress in layers, avoid alcohol and sedatives and keep exposed skin covered, particularly when it’s windy.

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