Winter came to Washington two years late — and some still weren’t ready for it.
This week, an arctic chill has descended on the region, sending temperatures plunging to daytime highs last seen in January — 2011.
With the low temperatures came the kind of crises that hadn’t happened in months — homeless shelters filled up, a Metro rail broke, pipes burst, and a worker on a cellphone tower was stuck nearly 200 feet above the ground, too cold to make his way down. (He was rescued by a co-worker).
Everyone was as confused as the daffodils that had bloomed early and now lay in tiny yellow puddles, frozen overnight. It has been unseasonably warm for so long that people didn’t know exactly what to do. Some dug out faux furs and gloves long stored away.
Others underdressed: Children went off to the school bus in thin hoodies. Flip-flops were spotted at the inauguration Monday.
“People are kind of freakin’ out,” said lawyer Gabrielle Petersen, 31, an Arlington County resident who was waiting for her luncheon burrito along 15th Street NW on Wednesday afternoon. “It was really warm for a couple of years, and people have forgotten how it’s supposed to get cold in winter.”
True, the sages at The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang note that even in the warmest of winters the region will get some period of freezing weather, although the last time the area had a streak of days with highs of 29 degrees or lower happened over two days in January 2010, according to the Gang’s Jason Samenow. Last year was the warmest on record in the District and the Lower 48 states.
The forecast for this week calls for daytime temperatures to stay in the high 20s through at least Friday, when there is also a 60 percent chance of snow, with some night temperatures falling into the teens.
Across the region, homeless shelters were filling to capacity and beyond as the cold descended. In the District, the family homeless shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital was at its limit with 271 families, and two more families were put up in nearby hotels.
In Arlington, the A-Span emergency homeless shelter in the Courthouse area also was above capacity. Eleven people were sent to a shelter in neighboring Fairfax County.
Spots across the city and region where the homeless congregate were suddenly empty. But as icicles clung to the stone wall at the railroad bridge at K and Second streets NE, one woman lay huddled under a gray blanket, shivering.
“I’m doing okay,” she insisted, her hands shaking as she lay beside a cane and a plastic bag full of snacks. “As long as I can stay under my blanket.” She declined to give her name.
At a small park in the 1100 block of New York Avenue NW, Thomas A. Keiper refused Wednesday night to go to a warmer place. He lay on the ground, one blanket under him, and two over him. He accepted the aid from a shelter van, but was resolute in going it alone.
Shelters “are for dope addicts and criminals,” he said. I deserve a home.”
Elsewhere, the sudden plunge in temperatures left water utilities bracing for a flurry of water main breaks. Sudden changes in water temperature cause old, brittle pipes to weaken as they expand and contract.
“We’re asking for people’s patience,” said I.J. Hudson, a spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which has 5,600 miles of water pipe in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. “Things will start popping.”
Meanwhile, the area’s plumbers were taking calls from homeowners who may have forgotten after two years of relatively balmy weather the trick of keeping a tiny stream going so pipes don’t burst.
Bobbie Brady, a customer service representative for Magnolia Plumbing, said about a dozen customers had called by mid-
afternoon to report frozen pipes.
At Woodlin Elementary School in Silver Spring, the blast of freezing air meant that for the first time this year, the weather trumped lunchtime recess. Students arrived so bundled up in heavy scarves and hats that Principal Sarah Sirgo could barely see their eyes.
Sirgo hoped it would warm up, but it never did. She decided to keep the young bodies inside.
“This is like arctic air, all of the sudden,” she said. “We have not built up to this.”
Also Wednesday, a cellphone tower repairman working in Montgomery County was overwhelmed by cold and called 911, saying he could not get down because his hands were numb, said Assistant Fire Chief Scott Graham of the county’s Fire and Rescue Service.
As rescue workers arrived, the repairman was making his way to the ground with the help of a co-worker, Graham said.
The repairman was suffering from hypothermic symptoms that were not life-threatening and was taken to a hospital, Graham said. Rescue workers had measured the wind chill at 11 degrees at the base of the tower.
The weather was a boon to nearby ski resorts, such as Liberty Mountain and Ski Roundtop in Pennsylvania, where business had suffered last year. This week, they’re taking advantage of the weather and working their snowblowing apparatus round-the-clock, representatives said.
“We’re making a ton of snow, so it’s been great for us,” said Chris Dudding, marketing director of Ski Roundtop.
Not everybody was as excited, or impressed. On Wednesday, Tremayne Young was walking home from the Columbia Heights Giant carrying a bag of 10 still-very-frozen miniature pizzas, wearing just a Nike sweatshirt over his short-sleeved cotton tee. He put down his green mesh grocery bag and began shaking his bare right hand.
“I’m fine, I just don’t like when my fingers get numb,” he said. But he was not complaining. “In Alaska, it’s 10 times worse than this.’’
Erik McWilliams, 75, a Rockville resident who went for an indoor swim in Germantown on Wednesday, had a similarly sanguine attitude.
“I grew up in Iowa,” he said. “This is balmy for us.”
Jeremy Borden, Steve Hendrix, Rachel Karas, Michael Laris, Carol Morello, Dan Morse, Corinne Reilly, Michael Rosenwald, Alex Kane Rudansky, Katherine Shaver, Miranda Spivak, Donna St. George, Patricia Sullivan, Susan Svrluga, Julie Tate, Clarence Williams and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.