Bitter cold set to arrive: How can you protect yourself?

News-DemocratJanuary 2, 2014 

Snowfall from two to four inches blanketed the metro-east overnight, with heavier snowfall totals in the northern counties, such as Jersey County, which reported six inches in some spots by Thursday morning. Bitter temperatures will follow over the weekend, with night-time lows at or below zero degrees.

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With historically cold temperatures and more snow in the forecast, metro-east heating shelters are set to open and experts are warning residents about the dangers of bitter temperatures.

According to the latest forecast Friday morning, the temperature in the metro-east could dip as low as minus 8 degrees Monday night into Tuesday morning. The last time the temperature reached as low as minus 5 in the St. Louis area was Jan. 5, 1999, according to National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration records.

"We're looking at some of the coldest air this area has seen in" 15 years, National Weather Service meteorologist Fred Glass said. "But, before that gets here, we could see another 3 to 5 inches of snow over the weekend."

The low Sunday night into Monday morning is expected to be minus 2, with a low of minus 7 overnight into Tuesday morning.

To combat the cold, a number of heating shelters will open across the metro-east and in St. Louis.

Vera Jones, vice president of the Lessie Bates House in East St. Louis, said the organization's shelter is currently open and will remain that way until temperatures warm back up.

"We'll be providing a warm place for people to stay and some meals," Jones said. "It's important that people have some place to go when it's so dangerously cold."

Jones said the Lessie Bates Continuum of Life Center at 1274 N. 37th St. in East St. Louis can house 48 to 50 people. For information about the shelter, call 271-2522. Jones said East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks has talked with local church leaders and they've agreed to open their buildings to house additional people who need to get out of the cold.

Other overnight shelters are open in St. Louis including ones sponsored by the United Way and the New Life Evangelistic Center at 1411 Locust St. in St. Louis. Those places do not have pick-up service, so people who want to stay there have to find their own ride. For more information, call 314-421-3020.

Senior citizens can be especially vulnerable to extreme temperatures, according to Jeff Huber, president of Home Instead Inc., an organization that tries to help seniors remain independent in their homes.

"Winter can be a difficult time, as the harsh conditions especially impact seniors," Huber said. "Those over the age of 65 account for nearly half of all hypothermia deaths. As the body ages, the ability to maintain a normal internal body temperature decreases, creating an insensitivity to moderately cold temperatures. Seniors may not realize they are putting themselves at risk until symptoms appear."

The leading reason seniors get hypothermia, according to Huber, is due to poorly heated homes, a situation which is entirely preventable.

Huber urges people to check in frequently on seniors to make sure that they're doing all right. He said, while sometimes people on fixed incomes can be especially frugal, it's important to impress upon them that their thermostat must be set at 65 degrees or higher.

"Even as heating costs rise, your safety should be a priority," Huber said.

He added that set times to check on seniors should be established so if you don't hear from them at a certain time, you know there might be an issue. Huber added that seniors should not try to go outside in extremely cold conditions to try to shovel their driveway or sidewalks -- or even to get their mail -- not only because of temperature concerns but also slip and fall issues.

Local schools, many of which are planning to return from their winter holiday break on Monday just as the worst of the cold snap hits, will consider closing their buildings on a case by case basis, according to Matt Klosterman, superintendent of Belleville District 118.

"Usually at minus 5 or minus 10 we'll consider shutting down school," Klosterman said. "But we factor other things in like the wind chill and if there is snow on the ground.

"We could have kids as young as 5 years old standing at the bus stop in the morning," Klosterman said. "If they're not properly clothed, they don't have to be out there for long to suffer harm."

Klosterman said he has called off school because of cold weather twice in his nine years as superintendent.

Veterinarian Mike Harres of the Mon-Clair Animal Hospital in Millstadt and who works with the Belleville Humane Society said pets are also a concern in extremely cold temperatures.

"People might need a wake-up call because we haven't seen these extreme temperatures in quite a while," Harres said. "When you have a shelter for an outside pet that keeps the wind, rain and snow off of them, they're all right to a point. Especially if they have some warm bedding. Cold weather dogs like Malamutes and Huskies can handle it even down into the 20s, other dogs are much more susceptible. But these temperatures that are in the forecast are too low for any pet."

Harres suggested that animals be brought in if at possible, even if it means putting them in the garage where they'll get a few degrees of relief. If the pets must remain outside, Harres said some sort of heater is required for their shelter to keep the temperature at an acceptable level.

Glass said a pattern of bursts of cold air from the Arctic Ocean is responsible for the deep freeze.

"We've had a series of Arctic air masses come our way," Glass said. We'll get a break for a day or two and then the next one comes but we never really get a chance to recover. The mass that will bring the very cold temperatures Sunday is one of the coldest we have seen in quite a while."

About 2 inches of snow fell Wednesday night into Thursday morning in Belleville, a similar total to most of the metro-east. New Athens reported 1.8 inches and Highland had 1.7. But a belt cut across parts of northern Madison County which dumped 4.2 inches on Edwardsville, according to the National Weather Service.

According to the latest National Weather Service forecast, the Friday the high will reach 26 and Saturday the temperature will make it to 39. But Friday night the temperature will drop to 22 with a 60 percent chance of snow expected.

On Sunday the high will reach 23 But overnight temperatures will plunge with an expected low of minus 2. The high Monday is expected to be 4 and Monday night the temperature could fall to minus 7.

While the bitterly cold temperatures will be among the coldest ever recorded in this area during the month of January, they're expected to fall short of the all-time records. On Jan. 5, 1884, the low temperature in St. Louis was minus 22, the lowest temperature recorded during the month of January in St. Louis, while the high temperature that day was a record low of minus 2.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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