Arctic blast reaches Haywood

By DeeAnna Haney | Jan 07, 2014
Photo by: Shelby Harrell The water fountain next to the library on the campus of Haywood Community College was frozen on Tuesday morning.

With temperatures in the single digits that have dipped below zero several times this week, Haywood County residents are battling the coldest temperatures on record in nearly 30 years.

According to the National Weather Service, the coldest temperature on record for Haywood County was 22 below zero in January 1985. Wind gusts up to 25 mph brought chills of 30 below zero at times Tuesday for all of western North Carolina.

Many meteorologists are blaming the extreme temperatures on a "polar vortex," a cyclone of cold air being pushed from the North Pole, which is affecting most of the U.S.

The cold front has given Haywood County students an extra three days to their Christmas break as school officials cancelled classes Friday and Monday because of inclement weather. Though the snow melted away by Monday afternoon, school officials made the decision that evening to cancel another school day Tuesday, this time because of the frigid temperatures.

"It is very difficult to maintain school buildings when it is below zero and it is very difficult to get a vehicle started and running and the last thing we want is for a child, especially a young child, to be outside waiting on the school bus in those temperatures," said Bill Nolte, associate superintendent.

Not only was it unsafe for bus riders, but school leaders were concerned that the heat sources in the schools might not hold up to prolonged cold temperatures.

"These are abnormally cold temperatures that we haven't seen since January of 1985…Most of the units that we have aren't designed to be up and running in subzero temperatures and temperatures below 20 for a long period of time. Most of them will do fine overnight as it warms up during the day, but our vehicles and facilities don't do well when you stay below freezing for 24 to 48 hours," Nolte said.

School officials discussed holding Saturday school to make up for lost time, but decided against it.

"We considered having one of the make up days on Saturday, however with the new state testing regulations, that would have required us to do high school end-of-course testing on the Saturday make up day. Since Saturday makeup days often have poor attendance, that was not a good option," Nolte said.

The school cancellations also made changes to the planned end-of-semester workday, which is scheduled for schools to prepare report cards and to transition semesters for high schools. The workday is also needed for retesting and making schedule changes for some students.

The workday, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 15 has been moved to Tuesday, Jan 21.

Staying warm

The National Weather Service warned people in western North Carolina to layer clothes and avoid exposure to the cold, which could cause frostbite in minutes.

Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, Haywood County's only homeless shelter, is open to those in need of a warm place to stay during the frigid nights.

The shelter, which opened in early November, has been averaging about 17 people each night over the past couple of weeks, including two families with four children each. But those families and other guests were able to find housing in the past week or so, dwindling the shelter occupants to seven or eight each night.

"Our maximum is 21 and with those families finding housing, we have room to accommodate quite a few more," McLamb said.

However, no matter how cold the weather turns, guests must still adhere to the shelter's zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs and alcohol.

"We still breathalyze and we drug test. We don't deviate from that," McLamb said.

If a person is denied spending the night at the shelter, McLamb said he helps to find them alternate shelter.

The Open Door, located in the Frog Level district of Waynesville, is a shelter pickup location. Those who wish to stay at the shelter may go to the Open Door around 6:30 p.m. on any given night to eat dinner and ride a shuttle to the shelter. They are shuttled back to The Open Door the following morning for breakfast.

Free meals are offered to the public for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday and lunch Sundays. The Open Door offers evening meals to shelter guests.

"We've increased the meals to evening meals Monday through Friday and breakfast Saturday and Sunday so the people in the shelter have regular meals," said Perry Hines, director of The Open Door.

There are many people who don't stay at the shelter that frequent the Open Door for meals. Sometimes, people who stop by for food talk and help one another out, even if it just means letting a friend sleep on their couch, Hines said.

In extenuating circumstances, the organization will place a family in a hotel or help them find other resources to meet their immediate needs, Hines said.

Sharing the warmth

Champion Credit Union's campaign through December has generated nearly $21,600 to help people stay warm this winter. The funds were given to the Share the Warmth fund at Mountain Projects, Inc. for winter heating assistance.

With temperatures in the single digits and below zero, these funds have been life-savers, said Patsy Dowling, the agency's executive director.

“Most of the funds being used for (infrared) heaters,” Dowling said. “One lady’s furnace broken, and the repair folks are booked up, so we gave her a heater. The oil companies are booked up, too, so we’re just trying to fill the gaps.”

Dowling said the timing of the donation couldn’t have been better considering the brutal weather experienced this week.

“I think of how hard and sad today and the holidays would have been without Champion and the challenge grant. Turning people away would have been so heart-breaking,” she said.  “These donations are literally saving lives, and I get to see that first-hand.”

Noralyn Grindstaff, marketing and communications director for Champion Credit Union, said the funds raised through this year’s Share the Warmth challenge grant came from members and community organizations. Champion pledged to match the grants up to a total of $10,000.

“There was $11,594.96 donated from the community,” Grindstaff said. “With our match, it brought the total to $21,595.96 that ultimately went to Mountain Projects for emergency heating assistance.”

At Haywood Christian Ministry, the requests for heating assistance have increased dramatically in the past week, said agency director Lisa James.

The agency provides heating oil or infrared heaters to families with individuals who are 65 or older or with children of preschool age. They are also extending the offer to those with life-threatening illnesses as long as a doctor's note is provided.

The agency is handing out blankets and space heaters to anyone else in need of warmth who doesn't meet the other criteria. James said donations of space heaters, blankets, sleeping bags and warm clothing are readily accepted.

"Anything that people can do to help keep people warm is a help," she said.

Thanks to several food drives last month, the pantry is currently stocked to help meet the high demand for food, however James expects the shelves will begin to dwindle by February.

Keeping pets warm

It's also important to remember pets when bitter weather strikes, said Haywood County Animal Services Director Jean Hazzard.

If the animal cannot come inside, she suggested allowing it in a garage or storage area. If the animal must be outside, there are ways to keep it safe in the freezing conditions.

Hazzard suggests making sure the dog house isn't facing north and place a blanket or other object over the front of the dog house to block direct wind from reaching the animal. Wood shavings or blankets inside the dog house will hold the dog's body heat.

"A lot of people aren't being negligent, they just believe that the animal is completely acclimated and they are not. People just really need to stop and think," she said.

Outside animals, including livestock, must have access to a water source that will not freeze.

"The ordinance even reads that it has to be liquid water," Hazzard said. "This whole week, the chance of an outside dog's water being liquid, people are going to have to work at it."

Conserving energy

The relentless cold weather has caused an obvious spike in energy use as people crank up the heat in their homes. Several power outages have also been reported across the county.

Duke Energy officials are imploring customers to conserve energy as the extreme temperatures continue by turning off unnecessary lights and postponing household chores that involve the use of electricity.

They urged customers to select a comfortable thermostat setting when home and then turn it down a degree or two when away from home. They also suggested setting ceiling fans to operate clockwise to push warm air back down in a room or to open drapes and blinds to allow the sun to warm the house. Air filters should also be changed to increase heating system efficiency.

If power is lost, Duke Energy officials suggest turning off as many appliances and electronics as possible. This helps restoration efforts by reducing the immediate demand on the power lines when power is restored.

Temperatures are expected to warm up considerably, reaching the 50s by Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.