Power outages, water mains bursting, scores of closings, crashes, injuries in severe winter weather
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · January 10, 2014

A howling wind, ghostly drifting snow floating across roadways, nearly deserted streets and a deep, bitter cold turned the city into a brittle, unwelcoming landscape this past week, especially Monday and Tuesday.
The cold had an actual low temperature of -12 to -15, with a wind chill of -38 to -41, according to various weather outlets. It caused more problems than the snow, though the snow did cause its share.

Cold temperatures knocked out power to a small section of town, froze and burst water pipes and canceled an array of events throughout the city.

The city reported two water main breaks: one Monday night at the intersection of North Fourth and Northridge Drive that put the area of North Fourth, North Fifth, Orange Street and Lancaster Lane under a boil order; the second Tuesday night at Northside Drive and North Maple streets.

This second break affected a larger area: the 400 and 500 blocks of North Oliphant; all of Northside Drive and Crestview Drive; the 100 and 200 blocks of West Orange Street; the 400 and 500 blocks of North Maple Street; and the 200, 300 and 400 blocks of North Downey Street.

West Branch Community Schools started late on Friday and officials canceled school and extra-curricular activities altogether Monday and Tuesday until the “polar vortex” moved out of the area. Scattergood Friends School, with most staff and students living on-campus, did not cancel classes but the cold caused some equipment problems, Head of School Christine Ashley said.

The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site opened late on Friday and closed on Monday, but reopened Tuesday. The Hoover Library-Museum did not alter its hours. Churches met Sunday morning but many events were canceled or postponed from Sunday night through Tuesday.

Alliant Energy spokesman Ryan Stensland said 37 customers on South First, South Second and the 200 block of Cedar Street lost power Monday from 7:15 to 10:50 a.m. when a “spacer cable” — which connects a power line to a pole — failed for unknown reasons. About a dozen residents called in from the area that also included a couple of businesses, like West Branch Family Practice.

More than a dozen residents of West Branch Village, made up of mobile homes, had reported frozen or burst pipes and plumbers responded to numerous other calls to households throughout the city and outlying areas.

West Branch Family Practice and Patton Family Health Center reported an uptick in upper respiratory illnesses and a handful of injuries due to falls on ice.

Snow falling between Christmas and New Year’s Day caused several accidents, including a half-dozen or so on New Year’s Day alone, West Branch Fire Chief Kevin Stoolman said, with blowing snow a factor in most of the crashes. Two motorists had serious injuries and had to be transported to the hospital, he said.

City Administrator Matt Muckler said snow plowing did require overtime by public works staff, but nothing unexpected. After plowing, picking up some Christmas trees and meter-reading duties, public works employees kept busy Monday and Tuesday with indoor work to get out of the bone-chilling weather, he said.

Hoover Site Superintendent Pete Swisher said he chose to close Monday by weighing the safety of his staff against the likelihood that few visitors would turn out to tour the grounds in the intense cold.

“Part of me was thinking, ‘Wear a hat and get to work, you just had time off,’” he said, noting that two staffers commute from Cedar Rapids and a third from Solon. “But … we were not going to inconvenience a lot of people (by closing).”

Last week, an irrigation system near the Hoover grave site froze and broke open, he said. The system has been shut down and the park plans to repair it in the spring.

West Branch Family Practice receptionist Katelynn Cook said patients diagnosed with upper respiratory sickness has been increasing for the past two weeks, and a couple of patients came in with minor fall injuries.

Patton Family Health owner and Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner Emily Patton said the bad weather prompted her office to reschedule some appointments, especially with elderly patients.

“I’ve done a few house calls,” she said. “Winter is winter, but minus-zero wind chills are concerning.”

Patton’s office has seen about three or four fall injuries and “a lot” of respiratory illness in the fall and December, but there is a lull now before the expected flu season.

School Superintendent Kevin Hatfield said the school uses additives to allow the diesel fuel in school buses to avoid gelling in temperatures below -21 degrees, but he did not want to chance an additive failing and a bus stranded full of children.

He noted that the school gives out bus stop times to families so they know when to be out on the curb, but those times come with a “five- to eight-minute window” and many children arrive even earlier than that to wait.

“Some could be standing out there for 15 minutes,” he said. “We can’t leave them sitting there that long (in this cold).”

Some children who live closer get rides from parents, but many have no choice but to walk, Hatfield said.

“I was out there for 10 minutes (when it became uncomfortable),” he said. “So I feel good about the decisions we’ve made, even if we have to make up a few days.”

Lynch’s Plumbing office manager Sharon Lynch said freezing toilets, frozen pipes and even a frozen manhole cover that led to a farmer’s livestock watering system kept Lynch’s staff very busy. The farmer’s underground system had been kept warm with a heat lamp, but the bulb burned out.

“Our guys are scattered everywhere,” she said.

Some of the pipes are frozen but plumbers were unable to determine if they were also broken until the ice melted inside, she said.

Lynch said her company’s insurance agency prohibits them from working on plumbing in mobile homes for liability issues, so they were kept from responding to calls from West Branch Village.

West Branch Village manager Colton Miller said mobile home residents are provided with a list of plumbers who do work on mobile homes.

“We were averaging about three calls per hour,” he said Monday afternoon, and he believes others probably called plumbers directly rather than calling his office.

While the common knowledge is that people should let sinks trickle water to keep pipes from freezing, Miller said that could lead to sewer problems at the mobile home park. Instead, West Branch Village sells, at cost, heat tape and other items residents can use to fend off the cold. And for the last three years, he has hosted workshops in the fall to show residents best practices for dealing with intense cold.

“We try to do a lot of education,” he said. “But we’ve had two people show up in three years. That’s not a lot.”

The West Branch Parent-Teacher Organization postponed its meeting Tuesday because all district activities had been canceled, according to an e-mail from the organization.

Stensland said Alliant vehicles are in West Branch this week scouting out areas where trees need to be trimmed back and meeting with residents about the details. He said those visits are routine and not related to the cold.

He said Alliant discourages people from using ovens to warm their homes and reminds them that space heaters are only for small areas and should not be relied upon to keep the entire house warm, either.

The biggest concern is with drifting snow covering up the natural gas meters, especially around the regulator, because it blocks the outdoor emission of excess natural gas. That gas, when trapped in the home, often puts out a “rotten egg” odor, but there is still a possibility that an odorless, colorless, tasteless form of carbon monoxide could seep into a home.

Stensland encourages residents to use carbon monoxide detectors, especially in the winter months.

Pre-Christmas storm

Police Chief Mike Horihan said most people were staying indoors, but just before Christmas two vehicles were in the way of snow plows and officers helped some stranded motorists whose vehicle broke down on Interstate 80.

Hoover Park closed on Sunday, Dec. 22, for a couple of hours to allow maintenance crews time to clear snow, Swisher said.

Public Works Director Matt Goodale said an aerator “tripped out” at the water plant, but that was minor.

“It happens during cold spells like this,” he said.

The school relocated a couple of sporting events and canceled some non-varsity games to avoid the snow, according to Hatfield and coaches.

Horihan said residents should prepare for intense cold weather by making sure their tires, wipers and car batteries are in good working order, and that fluids like antifreeze, windshield washer and gasoline be topped off.

If a car gets stuck in snow, make sure the exhaust pipe is clear, the car is kept running to provide heat and that everyone stay with the car until help arrives, he said. Those without cell phones are encouraged to wave at passing vehicles and everyone is advised to tie a handkerchief to the antenna. In the trunk or back seat should be blankets or sleeping bags, boots, gloves, hats, jumper cables, candles, matches, a scraper, shovel, extra clothing, flashlights, a First Aid kit, sand or kitty litter and non-perishable food.

“These are life-threatening temperatures,” Horihan said of the sub-zero temperatures and even colder wind chills. “It will not take long for you to get into trouble.”

He praised the school district for canceling classes for the sake of one child who could get in trouble due to the cold. The police chief said it was wise to cancel school early so that student-athletes did not find themselves at an early morning practice when the news came that school would not meet.

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