Region dealing with coldest day in 20 years

On the coldest day in nearly 20 years, Marcos Mercado walks by a steam vent in North Philadelphia. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
On the coldest day in nearly 20 years, Marcos Mercado walks by a steam vent in North Philadelphia. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 09, 2014

When the weather is extremely cold in Philadelphia, the city declares a Code Blue.

When the weather is like it was Tuesday, "there's not a name for it," said Marcella Maguire, director of homeless services for the city's Department of Behavioral Health.

On the coldest day in nearly 20 years, temperatures as low as 4 degrees turned truck diesel fuel into useless sludge, canceled flights, slowed trains, and kept thousands of students from school.

For reasons known only to them, about 20 homeless people remained outside Tuesday night in Philadelphia, unmoved by both wind chills of 18 degrees below zero and entreaties to get inside from windburned advocates for the city and nonprofits. Many of the homeless were bivouacked under I-95 in South Philadelphia.

The city expanded the number of beds in its 33 shelters by 476, more than what was needed, said Leticia Hinton, deputy director of the Office of Supportive Housing. In all, more than 3,000 people were in shelters Tuesday night, she said.

Joseph Williams, 42, spent Monday night on the street wearing three layers of shirts to stay warm. For a while, he tried sleeping at 19th and Locust Streets, but "couldn't rest appropriately" in the cold.

At one point, outreach workers offered him a ride to a shelter, but Williams, who has been homeless for 12 years, refused. "I wanted to . . . [be] alone," he said.

By Tuesday night, however, the freezing air got to Williams, who agreed to go to a shelter. "I think [this winter] is the worst one I've seen since I've been homeless," he said.

Less visible than the homeless are the more than 13,000 low-income households in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs that were without heat Tuesday, according to the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project. These were people whose utilities were disconnected during 2013 and had not been reconnected, said Patrick Cicero, codirector of the utility advocacy group. Utilities are not permitted to disconnect households from Dec. 15 to March 31, he added.

"The situation is bad," Cicero said.

Because the Department of Licenses and Inspections does not immediately record heat complaints, there was no way to know how many Philadelphians were without heat Tuesday.

"We're living with my mom in Bucks County because there's no heat in our apartment," said Christopher Helm, 33, of Kensington, the father of three. "It's hard on her."

The need to stay warm caused electricity usage to skyrocket, with Tuesday being called an all-time winter peak by PJM Interconnection, the electricity grid operator for 13 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Faced with numbing cold, many Philadelphia parents kept their children home from school, officials said. Just 64 percent of students were in elementary and middle schools, while only 45 percent of high school and alternative-education school students attended.

Transportation was another problem.

Amy Thatcher's two sons, ages 10 and 12, waited for a half-hour in the morning for the school bus to pick them up. They were outside so long their eyes watered.

"I am livid," Thatcher said. After 30 minutes, she gave up and called a cab. A bus dispatcher told her that their drivers were having a tough time getting the vehicles started.

Attendance in the Lower Merion School District was normal, but students and staff were evacuated from Bala Cynwyd Middle School for five minutes Tuesday when a frozen sprinkler head burst and set off a fire alarm.

During a harsh day, Gloucester County opened its six nutrition sites for the elderly as warming centers.

In Camden, Harold Miller of Volunteers of America loaded a van full of sleeping bags, tarps, and coffees before he visited the tent encampments throughout the city where dozens of homeless sleep.

Ramon Munoz, 57, who lives in the woods off I-676 was appreciative, but like others turned down an offer for shelter. Miller worries that Munoz and others could die from hypothermia as they sleep.

People who had to work outside found themselves in constant combat with the merciless weather.

Lower Merion trash and recycling crews had dressed for battle. They donned insulated jumpsuits and neoprene balaclavas - ninja-like head coverings - before struggling with leftover leaf bags that had become saturated with the weekend's rain, had frozen to the ground, and now weighed about 50 pounds each.

In Burlington County, Public Works Director Joe Brickley suspended all but essential operations. "The main goal was just to protect our folks," he said.

Out on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, truckers absorbed unwanted science lessons, as two tractor-trailers became immobilized when the cold altered viscosity of diesel fuel, preventing it from reaching the engines, a turnpike spokesman said. One truck was near Downingtown, the other in Willow Grove.

"It's a brutal day out there for cars," said Jim Lardear, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. By midafternoon, AAA had received 1,824 calls for service, 34 percent more than last Tuesday, he said.

At Philadelphia International Airport, 88 of 1,333 flights were canceled Tuesday morning, according to FlightView, a flight information tracking company.

On the rails, Amtrak saw "extensive delays," said spokesman Craig Schultz.

Meanwhile, SEPTA service was suspended on the Paoli/Thorndale Regional Rail line because of an Amtrak wire problem.

The average temperature Tuesday was 8.5 degrees (a low of 4, a high of 13), the lowest recorded since Jan. 20, 1994, when the low was 1 and the high was 15.


Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman, Linda Loyd, Anthony R. Wood, Kristen A. Graham, Claudia Vargas, Michael Matza, Barbara Boyer, Aubrey Whelan, Melanie Burney, Susan Snyder, and Andrew Seidman.

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