published Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

The big freeze: Rare, dangerous cold awaits Chattanooga this morning

  • photo
    John Meadows, left, waits to cross Broad Street with his wife Rosie in downtown Chattanooga as they make their way home from grocery shopping in subfreezing afternoon temperatures Monday. "He bundles me up like an eskimo every time we go out," said Rosie.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

BY THE NUMBERS

51: Degrees at 7 p.m. on Sunday, before the cold front moved in.

26: Degrees at 7 a.m. on Monday.

16: Degrees at 11 a.m. on Monday.

12: The lowest daily high temperature on record in Chattanooga, set on Dec. 12, 1962.

0: Every major weather-reporting station in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin reported temperatures below zero at 11 a.m. Monday.

-10: Chattanooga’s all-time low (in 1985, 1966 and 1899).

  • photo
    Pedestrians walk along M.L.King Boulevard on Monday as temperatures drop into the teens.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

CLOSINGS

Check our news partner's website, wrcbtv.com, for updates on closures.

• Hamilton County Schools will open for staff at 10 a.m. today. This includes central office, school administrators, faculty and staff. Teachers will report to their assigned professional development sites at 10 a.m. Maintenance employees will report at their regular time and School Aged Child Care will open on its regular schedule.

• Hamilton County general government buildings will be open, although constitutional officers can decide whether they will open or close their offices. Courts and some constitutional offices were closed Monday morning. However, Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles said Monday his offices will remain open.

• Whitfield County Schools will be closed for students today due to the weather. Staff members will report at 8 a.m. for a professional learning day.

• Walker, Dade, Grundy, Catoosa and Murray County, Ga., schools will be closed today.

• All Walker County government offices will be closed today because of subzero wind chill. All polling precincts will be open for voters participating in the District 2 House race.

ROADS/TRAVEL

According to Hamilton County spokesman Michael Dunne, Roberts Mill Road is the only one closed due to the winter weather, although he added the county always keeps a close eye on Signal Mountain's W Road. Otherwise, the county has been working to spread salt and sand on key roads to limit icing. But AAA spokesman Don Lindsey still urges all drivers to pay special attention to the roads, to keep low speeds and to avoid quick acceleration. State highways in the Chattanooga area were listed as clear and dry late Monday.

IT'S SO COLD IN CHATTANOOGA THAT ...

... "Ruby Falls is now called Rubycicle."

-- Claude Jacobs

... "the Choo-Choo is now just called the Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch!"

-- Shannon D. Brown

... "the penguins at the Aquarium have volunteered to be the state bird."

-- E.J. Crane

... "it's call "Chatter...nooga" now."

-- Alice Wooten Beatty

... "the Chattanooga Choo Choo has been renamed the 'Polar Express.'"

-- Jeffry Woolston

... "the U.S. Olympics ski jumping team is using the Incline as a practice slope."

-- Patricia Lee

-- From the Times Free Press Facebook page

FROZEN CAR?

Here's how to open a frozen car door. Using liquids can cause freezing auto glass to crack. Instead, gently -- but firmly -- pound the outside of the car door with a gloved hand. In many cases, the ice is stuck to the soft weatherstripping between the door and the frame, and a good rap will break the ice. Or spray a household aerosol metal lubricant between the door and frame to gently melt the ice.

Source: AAA Auto Club

FROZEN PIPES?

If you turn the faucet and the water doesn't run, it could be because your pipes are frozen. Don't panic. Frozen pipes don't automatically mean busted pipes. You have three options: Call a plumber to thaw the pipes. Wait for the pipes to thaw naturally. Or thaw the pipes yourself. To do that, enclose the area and add extra heat near the pipes. As the pipe thaws, keep an eye for leaks, which signal a busted pipe. If you see a leak, you'll need to replace the pipe. If not, you're in the clear.

Source: Keefe Plumbing

FROZEN TOES?

In extreme cold, frostbite can set in within 10 to 15 minutes -- even sooner for children and the elderly. Wind-chill warnings have been issued for parts of Alabama and North Georgia. Parts of Tennessee at higher elevations are under wind-chill advisories. Bundle up in coats and hats. Cover the face and extremities. Bring pets indoors.

Source: National Weather Service

Old Man Winter has seized the Tennessee Valley in his death grip, and he's not letting the area out of his clutches just yet.

As the sun set Monday, temperatures dove into the single digits, and far lower with a slicing wind chill that felt like negative 10 degrees in some areas, and as low as negative 25 on some parts of the plateau.

Today, Chattanooga area lows hovered at around 5 degrees, with subzero windchills -- temperatures not felt in the last decade.

WRCB meteorologist Paul Barys said of today's early temperatures, "It will be the coldest we've seen in quite, and definitely the coldest we've seen so far this week. It will be in single digits nearly everywhere, and in the mountaintops on the Cumberland it could be zero to five below."

The cold arrived in the region without the drama of a snowfall or an ice storm, but with a harshness and a staying power that left utility crews working around the clock, flights canceled, schools closed and emergency shelters open.

"One night [in the cold] is one thing, two nights is another thing -- but once you get to three, four, five nights -- it gets pretty dangerous," said Charlie Hughes, executive director of Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

He said some 75 homeless people took advantage of the center on Sunday night, and he expected more Monday night.

The arctic chill stems from what meteorologists have explained is a "polar vortex," an air pressure phenomenon that has impacted much of the nation. Wind chill warnings have stretched from Montana to Alabama, with heavy snow in the Midwest, and Southern states bracing for possible record low temperatures, too, with single-digit highs expected today in some parts of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

Some people are having trouble keeping warm in their own homes.

Tabitha Higgins Croucher stayed cuddled in her bed until noon with her 4-month-old and 3-year-old on Monday. She and her husband live with their kids in a double-wide trailer in Lookout Mountain, Ga. They have space heaters and a wood stove to stay warm, but the house is still frigid.

"I don't know how cold it actually is, but I can see my own breath right now," Croucher said.

She tightly swaddled her baby and dressed her daughter in two onesies, a dress, a jacket and a vest. The pipes are frozen, so they are using water from buckets they filled before the freeze.

Officials with Erlanger Health System reported they treated a dozen area residents for weather-related injuries since Friday, mainly for falls -- but also for car accidents, sledding injuries and burns from a heating unit.

Road crews and utility workers throughout the region braved the elements, trying to keep both traffic and power from freezing to a halt in the region's more mountainous areas.

Power was out for 700 EPB customers in Brainerd and East Brainerd about 8 p.m. Monday when lines became overloaded. Power outages also affected 1,800 Signal Mountain residents for two hours Monday night. Earlier that day, hundreds on Lewis Chapel Mountain lost electricity after downed trees took out some power lines.

EPB positioned crews overnight to deal with scattered outages in the region, said spokesman John Pless.

"We have both the extreme cold affecting our equipment, and the high demand on our system peaking tonight and in the early morning," Pless said.

Road conditions have been less treacherous than feared in most of the valley area. But in mountainous areas east and west of Dunlap, Tenn., roads became slick as snow and ice took hold early Monday.

In Marion County, road crews worked quickly to clear trees that fell throughout the areas.

"The secondary roads are pretty slick," Sheriff Ronnie "Bo" Burnett said. "If I lived out in the rural areas, I'd stay home if I could."

But for some, hibernation is not an option.

Zachary Vineyard, of Red Bank, works for Cornerstone Granite, installing stone at construction sites. On Monday, he didn't expect to get off work until 8 p.m. when temperatures were supposed to be hovering just above the single digits.

"We are bundled to death, we got toboggans, and hoodies, and hats, and big ol' boots and long johns, and it's still freezing," Vineyard said.

Even Bobby Hart -- a maintenance man with Papa Properties with a such a high tolerance for cold that he shuns even a sweater for most of the year -- had suited up in a University of Alabama sports jacket on Monday for work.

"Today was just a little too much," Hart said. "Too cold, and too dangerous."

Livestock farmers are also having to stay on alert to care for their cattle in the frigid weather.

"The two big things to think about with livestock is to make sure they have good quality hay and good quality water that's not frozen," said Dunlap's University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension agent Sheldon Barker.

The wind chill advisory will remain in place until about noon today, when winds will finally die down, said Morristown, Tenn. National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Doyle.

From there, temperatures will start climbing again. By Wednesday, the high will be around 40, while the weekend should see temperatures reaching into the mid-50s, Doyle said.

That's good news to Jillian Sharp, of Dayton, Tenn., who plans to pick up her aunt, Marcella Jones, from the airport this afternoon. Jones, who has been in her hometown in Alaska, booked a flight to Tennessee, thinking it would be an escape from the 30-degree temperatures.

As it turns out, it's colder here.

"She's kind of disappointed, but I told her that Wednesday is supposed to be warmer," Sharp said.

The Associated Press and staff writers Louie Brogdon, Ben Benton and Mary Helen Miller contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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