January 3, 2013

Weather has central Maine teeth chattering

BY MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING

Subzero temperatures descended on the region early Thursday morning, leading to increased use of warming centers and a warning from a wilderness survival expert to be smart about the cold.

Surviving the cold

Mike Douglas, an outdoor survival expert at the Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta, said that knowing how to beat the cold can be a matter of life and death, especially for those who plan to spend time outside alone. Douglas said hypothermia sets in after a prolonged period of exposure, Once the body’s temperature goes below a certain threshold, it can be almost impossible to bring it back up without intervention.

His advice includes:

• Plan to make your time outside short, and let someone know when you plan to come back. If a person doesn’t come back when he’s supposed to, a search should be started as soon as possible. Sometimes less than four hours of exposure can lead to deadly hypothermia.

• Dress in three layers. The inside layer should be a wicking material, not cotton, that takes moisture away from the body. The second, insulating, layer should contain a lot of air space. “The poofier the better,” Douglas said. His personal favorite is wool, which he said is natural and can protect even when wet. The outer layer should be a breathable shell, like Goretex.

• Carry a spare pair of mittens. When your fingers get cold, swap your mittens.

• While outside, don’t wait until the cold is debilitating. “Head in as soon as you start to feel cold, especially if you have nothing else to put on.”

• “If your feet are cold, get off the ice and stand on the snow. If you’re on the snow, get off the snow and stand on some hemlock boughs.” Much of the body’s heat is lost through conduction, so contact with dense material like ice leaches away heat faster than snow or branches.

• Keep moving. “The worst thing you can do is sit down and curl into a ball. If you have to curl up, don’t do it where anything is going to leach away heat.”

• The signs of hypothermia are similar to those of dehydration. Douglas calls them the “umbles” — if someone starts to stumble, fumble in an uncoordinated way, mumble or grumble, he may be suffering from hypothermia and not realize it.
— Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
 

Elsewhere in the community, schools reacted by keeping children inside, while police noted a shift in criminal activity.

In Waterville, the temperatures reached a low of 8 below zero early Thursday morning. By 9 a.m., it had warmed to zero degrees. The air was relatively calm, although wind chills did reach a low of 14 below zero on Wednesday night.

Eight below zero is the lowest Jan. 3 temperature in Waterville since 1999, according to Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Hawley said the lowest temperature ever recorded for that date is minus 27, set in 1918.

In Augusta, it was technically warmer than in Waterville, with temperatures hovering around 1 for most of Thursday morning, but stronger wind created a wind chill factor low of 15 below around midnight Wednesday.

Local charities say that high fuel costs and the poor economy have combined to create a larger need for their warming centers, where people can eat, drink and socialize in comfort.

Tina Chapman is the president of United Way of Mid-Maine, which operates a warming center on Water Street in Waterville.

She said that the cold snap causes the 20-25 people who use the center on an average day to stay for longer and put off errands.

“They just tend to be there all day,” she said.

The center is open to anyone who would like to enjoy a warm place without running up heating bills at home, but Chapman said that many of the regulars are from a local homeless shelter and lack vehicles.

“Whenever they need to do anything, they are walking around town,” she said. “It just makes things more challenging.”

Three Farmington churches have joined to provide a warming center to area residents on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the past four winters.

“We’ve had people tell us the only way they could stay warm enough was to stay in bed,” the Rev. Susan Crane of the Henderson Memorial Baptist Church said. “People can’t afford to heat their homes to the level they would like.”

Thursday, 37 people came when the center opened for the first time this season at Old South Congregational Church. The center averaged 30 people a day last season. 

St. Joseph’s Parish, the third church participating in the program, is scheduled to host the warming center later in the season.

Coordinator Shirley Waddell said center guests passed the time on the first day by playing cribbage and card games, doing crossword puzzles or sewing.

The people come to get out of the cold, Waddell said, but are even more interested in the companionship that the community provides.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that community is the most important defense against the cold, according to outdoor survival expert Mike Douglas, who runs the Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta.

Douglas said that being in touch with other people who can help in case of a crisis is the single most important factor in surviving the elements.

“Without community, this far away from the equator, our species is done for,” Douglas said. “The cold can kill us in an hour if we don’t have any protection. Community is the first defense against the cold.

The second one is technology, and it is a poor substitute.”

Nationwide, about 1,300 people die every year from exposure to excessive natural cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 67 percent of the victims of hypothermia-related deaths were males.

(Continued on page 2)

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