Overnight low temperatures this week could pose dangers to vulnerable people who don’t have adequate shelter. So, agencies around the state are preparing.
By Rose Hoban
On normal nights, the men’s shelter on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill can hold up to 60 people. But when the weather gets bad – during hurricanes, snow or extreme cold – the staff pushes the tables and chairs in the dining room on the first floor aside to make more room.
“We have a lot of mats; they’re the rubber-plastic mats and blankets,” said Judy Klimcheck, residential services director for the Inter-Faith Council, which runs the Community House. “We put tables away. We call the fire department and tell them we have extra people in the building.”
Klimcheck said it’s hard to predict how many people will show up at the shelter in the next day or so, but the preparations her agency is making are being paralleled all over the state as arctic temperatures arrive in North Carolina.
The so-called “polar vortex” will bring nighttime temperatures in the single digits for most of the Piedmont and temperatures in the teens in coastal counties, according to the National Weather Service. And social service and health care agencies are bracing for the influx of people that usually accompanies cold weather.
Word gets around
Klimcheck said the word usually gets around in the homeless population that cold weather is coming, but not everyone will get informed ahead of time.
“There’s a variation of folks, including a huge variety of people who do not feel comfortable to participate in society, and they like being off by themselves,” she said. Sometimes those folks get caught by surprise when the cold hits.
Klimcheck said there are others who think they can build a little fire in the woods to keep themselves warm.
But the ferocity of the cold that’s on the way this week can come as a surprise.
“Sometimes someone thinks they can be warm enough…. Those are the folks who won’t even show up to us until 2 a.m.,” Klimcheck said.
She said her agency will be ready, with extra scarves, blankets and coats to give away for people who come in needing help.
Plans put in motion
County and city social service agencies always have cold-weather plans ready to set in motion, said Sarah Williamson, a spokeswoman for Wake County Human Services.
“We’re keeping a close eye on the weather,” said Williamson, who described some of the “white flag” conditions that get implemented during cold snaps.
“We’re not going to say that there are too many people, like we might do in the spring or fall when the weather’s not as bad,” she said. People will also be able to stay inside shelters during the sub-freezing weather on Wednesday, rather than compelling people to leave during the daytime.
Other plans could include opening warming centers for people to get out of the cold, but Williamson said they’re not contemplating that this week because the cold will be gone within 36 to 48 hours.
According to the National Weather Service, daytime temperatures will return to the 40s throughout much of the state by Thursday.
Stacy Shelp with the Orange County Health Department said Monday was filled with conference calls coordinating between county social service officials, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and emergency responders.
“Emergency services is working with ambulance drivers to have them keep an eye out for homeless folks and get them into shelters and other safe spaces,” she said. “We’re tackling the issue in a variety of ways.”
Shelp said power companies are included in planning efforts.
“The more people that crank up thermostats, the more chance of a power outage,” she said. “So we tell people to lower thermostats by one or two degrees and then layer up at home.”
Shelp also cautioned against using generators and heaters indoors, which increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Hospitals always ready
Officials at UNC Hospitals are readying a sheltered loading dock as a staging area for local emergency responders to protect them, their patients and vehicles from the cold.
But officials at Level I trauma centers such as Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte said they’re ready for anything all the time. Spokesman Kevin McCarthy said that aside from implementing treatment protocols to warm up people who come in with hypothermia, they aren’t doing anything special.
Jerri Jameson, spokeswoman for Mission Health Care in Asheville, echoed that, saying, “We’re always on an inclement-weather standby.”
She said overnight lows in Asheville are predicted to hover just around zero, with wind chills in the negative numbers.
“But for us to actually open our incident command center, it’d have to be pretty bad, like staff not being able to get in,” Jameson said.
“We’re always prepared. We get more snow out here than they do down in the rest of the state.”