A Wintry Two-Step: First the Cold, Then the Wet

Stan Stevens, 52, uses a steaming sidewalk grate at Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW to keep warm. A city shelter hotline received more than 100 calls Tuesday.
Stan Stevens, 52, uses a steaming sidewalk grate at Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW to keep warm. A city shelter hotline received more than 100 calls Tuesday. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

Knit hats, scarves and hypothermia emergency plans came out of storage this week as a chill gripped the Washington area during a month that already has been unusually cold. Today, a mess of a storm is predicted to dump a winter cocktail of snow, freezing rain and sleet.

As the month neared its midpoint, the coldest conditions of the season descended, with temperatures holding at freezing or below at all three of the region's airports yesterday for the second day in a row. Temperatures have been below normal every day but one this month, a cold shock after a November with temperatures warmer than average.

"We've been flirting with record low temperatures," National Weather Service meteorological technician Calvin Meadows said yesterday. At the Weather Service's forecast office near Dulles International Airport, the temperature dipped to 9 degrees early yesterday morning, only 6 degrees above the record low at the airport for Dec. 14.

For today, the National Weather Service has predicted a winter blend that will begin as snow in the morning, then change to freezing rain or sleet at midday. How much winter weather anybody gets will depend on the location. The precipitation is forecast to change to rain in the District and areas east and south of the city but might not north and west.

"It looks like a bit of a mess," AccuWeather meteorologist John Gresiak said. "It will be a gradation -- 20 miles will make a difference to some extent. Forty miles will make a bigger difference. You don't have to travel very far to go from one thing to another."

The region's cold snap is part of a broader pattern chilling the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, thanks to an upper-atmosphere highway of wind driving eastern Canada's weather our way. Meanwhile, as often happens when the East Coast is shivering, much of the western United States is enjoying mild and dry weather.

In the District, which activates its hypothermia plan when the temperature or wind chill falls below freezing, vans have been cruising the streets looking for homeless residents. The nonprofit group that coordinates homeless shelter operations planned to open an additional shelter at Banneker Recreation Center last night to meet demand.

"It's keeping the drivers jumping," said Ruth Walker, program director for the United Planning Organization's shelter hotline, which took more than 100 calls Tuesday from people needing shelter or reporting others who did. "You run to get one in one place, and by the time they've finished, they've got six in the van where they've picked them up all over the place."

Cornell Chapelle, chief of program operations for the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, said shelters are getting heavy use, "but we have had capacity." He said 200 to 300 more people typically stay in shelters on cold nights than on milder nights. Some shelters have been open during the day as well.

Cold also raises heating bills, creating a second hardship for those unable to pay them. James B. Smith, executive director of Howard County's Community Action Council, said his agency has helped 166 clients pay heating bills and purchase home heating fuel so far. "That's higher compared to last December at this time," he said. "We're looking at about a 20 percent increase."

Smith said yesterday that the anti-poverty agency has exhausted about 75 percent of its energy assistance funds and that it plans "some immediate fundraising."

Not everyone was in emergency mode. In Old Town Alexandria, Elizabeth Harrington, an ophthalmic technician on her lunch break, said she was perfectly comfortable. She was wrapped in a white down jacket and knit hat, and she said she had put on long johns in anticipation of the cold. "I like it," said Harrington, who lives in Alexandria. "Dress in layers, and you don't freeze."

Cathy Chauvette and her husband, David Coker, of Hollin Hills, were somewhat less well prepared during a shopping trip to Old Town. "We're a little nippy," said Coker, shivering in a canvas jacket. "We should have brought some hats."

"My blood doesn't get thick this early," said Chauvette, who was wearing a scarf but not a hat. "It's not till January that you get into the mind-set of winter."

But Anthony Rizzo, 15, whose family owns a Christmas tree lot in western Howard County, said there was an upside to the cold spell. As the flow of customers buying Douglas and Fraser firs remained steady despite afternoon temperatures in the mid-20s, Rizzo said, "It makes people pick their trees faster."

The December chill has been a turnaround from a mild November, when temperatures reached the 60s or even 70s most days, and cold air did not hit until nearly Thanksgiving. "It's like a cold slap in the face -- like, snap out of it," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and public affairs specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And, Gresiak added, "It doesn't look like [there will be] any big changes anytime soon."

Staff writers Tara Bahrampour, Christian Davenport and Susan DeFord contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company