Yep, It's Cold. There's No Relief in Sight

By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL

Everyone is talking about it. The big freeze is here and its impact is significant.

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On Monday the Vineyard received 200,000 gallons of home heating oil on a barge from New Bedford. Today, another 200,000 gallons are expected to arrive - and Vineyard oil burners keep thirsting for more.

Arctic temperatures this week were hovering around the single digits. The days ahead don't look better.

School was canceled yesterday because of concerns about snow, although Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash said later in the day that may have been an overreaction - a decision based on early-morning forecasts. It was canceled again today along with schools in more than 250 other locations around the state, because of concerns about the biting cold.

Yesterday afternoon it was seven degrees at the Martha's Vineyard Observatory at South Beach, and nine degrees at the Martha's Vineyard Airport.

"I am telling people to just stay home," said Joyce Stiles-Tucker, director of the Tisbury Council on Aging. "Don't go out. If they need something, have someone else get it for them. That is the safest way to deal with it. Some places are treacherous as far as ice is concerned."

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The drama of outrageously cold weather has a way of being understated by Islanders with memory. This is, after all, not the coldest winter. Records aren't being broken on the Vineyard, yet. Though the temperature at the National Weather Service cooperative station dropped to three degrees on Wednesday morning, five degrees yesterday and four degrees on Saturday morning, it has been colder.

In 54 years of record keeping, the station saw the temperature drop to -9 in February of 1961; -5 in January of 1970 and -7 in March of 1950.

But there is nothing like being prepared - that is also an Island way.

Dr. Alan Hirshberg, emergency room director at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital, said the people who run into trouble with these extreme temperatures are either very young or old. "The older folks' ability to adapt to cold temperatures decreases as you get older. Some medications impair the body's ability to adapt. Try and avoid alcohol for it impairs your judgment. It makes the blood vessels open and you can lose heat faster," Dr. Hirshberg said.

While there have been no cases yet of either hypothermia or severe frostbite in the emergency room, the staff is armed for them. Dr. Hirshberg said the possibilities for trouble are out there. "I am worried about the roofers, the people in the construction trades. They work on houses in all kinds of weather."

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The doctor urges all drivers to put an emergency winter first aid kit in the car. The most important item: a blanket. "It is probably more of an issue for those driving on the mainland, but it is an issue here," he said.

William L. Searle, the state environmental police sergeant, would take the precautions a step further. He said he urges those with vehicles to carry more than blankets in a vehicle during this cold period. "Even if you are running from one place to another, make sure you have gloves, mittens and head protection," he said.

Strategy is key for the effectiveness of Dukes County's search and rescue department during the big chill. Director Karen Ogden met Mr. Searle to discuss preparations. "It is critically important to find a person as soon as humanly possible," Mr. Searle said. "With the wind chill at night we have to be unusually alert to make sure the danger of frostbite doesn't just impact the missing person but those searching."

Failing heating systems are also a big concern.

A broken system at the Tisbury Town Hall caused problems for workers arriving Monday morning. "The furnace went out," said Dennis Luttrell, Tisbury town administrator. "Town Hall is pretty antiquated and that happens from time to time. It could have been disastrous. Fortunately, another employee came in on Saturday to do some work, noticed the cold and made phone calls. When they turned the heat back on, the water started running like crazy through some cracks in the pipes."

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Mr. Luttrell explained that the pipes run over the tops of many offices, so the leak caused some damage to ceilings and walls.

Robert Smith of Walter Smith Plumbing said, though, that the plumbing situation isn't as bad this year as last, when January was particularly tough.

Phil Hale, president of Martha's Vineyard Shipyard, said that in winter "it is always challenging to find warm projects for the staff." The 20 people that work in the boatyard sheds have been varnishing and painting. "We hauled two boats on Monday. Years ago you laid up your equipment and didn't do anything. Today you talk about exposure suits," he said. And so the work goes on.

On the waterfront there were only two boats bay scalloping out of Tisbury before the big freeze. Now, with the ice spread across Lagoon Pond, the skiffs are locked at the dock.

Visually, the chill has offered spectacular sights for those who venture out. Last Saturday morning when the temperature was rising slowly from a minimum of four degrees, sea smoke surrounded the Island. The air temperature so sharply contrasted with the water temperature that stratus clouds formed a blanket over the waterways.

Those inland and in West Tisbury were canopied by clear blue skies. Those near the shore experienced partial clouds. A steady wind from the northwest blew over Beach Road in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, offering another spectacle.

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The landscape was covered with snow-like ice crystals, which clung to the branches, wires and landscape.

For reasons unclear, the meteorological weather instruments at the Martha's Vineyard Airport stopped working early in the week and had to be attended to. Anthony Newman, air traffic controller, said the cold air does not impact the way planes operate. From his vantage point 70 feet above the airport, he said: "I love looking out here. I lived up in Maine. We used to have three feet of snow up there." This, admittedly, was easier.

Ralph Packer of Packer Oil, a home heating oil distributor, said that the oil supplies in New England are adequate. Wholesale prices seem steady, with a slight increase.

Dr. Hirshberg points to the American College of Emergency Physicians website, for those concerned about health care, at www.acep.org.

Sandy Whitworth, activities program director at the Tisbury Council on Aging, urges the public to balance caution with calm, and not to panic. "Weather forecasters on television are using adjectives like ‘dangerously cold' arctic blast, ‘bone chilling' numbers," she said. "The way they are presenting their information is terrorizing people. It was not snowing yesterday. The media should be careful how they present, how they warn people about frost bite."

Sometimes meteorological characterization is unnecessarily harmful, in her view. "I am not saying it isn't dangerous. You have to use your common sense."