Are school districts going ‘soft’? Cold spell stirs debate
By MICHAEL MELIA
Friday, February 1
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — As a blast of Arctic weather swept across the country, Waterbury schools superintendent Verna Ruffin consulted forecasts and transportation officials before making the call: Schools in the hilly Connecticut city would delay opening by two hours Thursday. Within hours, social media was ablaze with criticism.
Some parents said schools should be closed entirely due to temperatures near zero degrees. With little snow on the ground, others questioned why schools should be affected at all.
The extreme weather that shuttered schools across a swath of the northern United States this week spurred similar debates over when such calls are appropriate, and whether school districts today might be getting “soft,” as suggested by Kentucky’s governor.
The debates also provoked conversations about the disruptions of school closures or delays on working families and poor students.
In making her decision to delay the start of school in Waterbury, Ruffin said she was worried about children walking to school on icy streets without sidewalks — and especially children who would be counting on eating breakfast and lunch at the school cafeterias. In Waterbury, three-quarters of the students are in families below the income threshold to qualify for free or reduced price meals.
“I am concerned about what happens if a child might be at home and there is no food,” she said. “That warm building for them might be the school.”
Superintendents in hundreds of districts had to wrestle with similar decisions during this week’s punishing cold snap. In Midwestern cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, it was a simple call given the temperatures that plunged to around 30 below zero, with wind chills much worse. It was a tougher decision on the East Coast, where it was cold and potentially dangerous, but not quite life-threatening.
Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said he was being slightly facetious when he told a radio station that closing schools for cold weather “sends messages to our young people that if life is hard you can curl up in the fetal position somewhere.”
In the debate touched off by his comments, many have pointed to the class divide between working parents that are inconvenienced by delays and poorer families that might not have a car to bring their children to school.
In a Facebook post that was shared more than 28,000 times in the span of a day, Courtney Schnitzler, who lives outside Louisville, Kentucky, called for cooler heads. “School is cancelled because not all kids have parents like you,” she wrote. “Not all kids get a ride to school, some walk the entire way. Not all kids get to sit in the warm car while they wait on the bus to come to the stop.”
Schnitzler said she doesn’t have children herself, but wanted to help other people sympathize with those around them.
In Waterbury, where the announcement of Thursday’s delay attracted over 280 comments on Facebook, Ruffin said she made the call the night before in hopes of alleviating the stress of parents who might need to make accommodations for child care. But she said she had to make the best decision for the entire community.
“Nobody should call anybody soft unless you’ve walked in those shoes,” she said. “I think you have to be sensitive and aware of the community you serve.”
Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie said it was an easy decision to close schools Wednesday and Thursday, when forecasters were predicting heavy snow and wind chills of 30 degrees below zero.
But it did weigh on his mind that it’s near the end of the month and he knows families on public assistance are stretched thinner than usual.
“In this case it was really a no-brainer. But I’m weighing the time of the month, I’m weighing the lack of food that kids will have if they count on us. Some of our kids use our nursing services to monitor their medicines and their inhalers and things like that,” he said.
He said when it’s a close call he opts to close schools and make up the day another time.
“There’s no heroism in keeping the school open just to say you’re tougher,” he said. “The only contemplation is, do those kids need the food and warmth of the building?”
Raenette Riddick, whose daughter attends Catholic Academy of Waterbury, Connecticut, said she understands the struggles of those who have to scramble to find child care or whose children have to walk to school. But, she adds, it’s unfair to lay all the blame at the feet of school officials.
“We tend to view things from a very one-sided angle without appreciating everything that school officials are looking at from a balcony view,” she said. “And we’re looking at it from the floor.”
Associated Press writers Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.
Midwest awaits spring-like thaw just days after bitter cold
By TAMMY WEBBER and JEFF KAROUB
Friday, February 1
CHICAGO (AP) — The bitter cold that gripped the Midwest forced commuters to bundle up like polar explorers. By early next week, many of those same people might get by with a light jacket.
Just days after the arctic conditions, forecasts say, the region will seemingly swing into another season, with temperatures climbing by as much as 80 degrees. Experts say the rapid thaw is unprecedented, and it could create problems of its own — bursting pipes, flooding rivers and crumbling roads.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a case where we’ve seen (such a big) shift in temperatures” in the winter, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the Weather Underground firm. “Past record-cold waves have not dissipated this quickly. … Here we are going right into spring-like temperatures.”
Although many places remained painfully cold Thursday, the deep freeze eased somewhat, and the system marched east. In western New York, a storm that dumped up to 20 inches of snow (51 centimeters) gave way to subzero temperatures and face-stinging wind chills. On Friday, the wind chill in some areas was expected to be as low as minus 20 degrees (negative 28.9 Celsius).
A ban on trucks and commercial buses on the western section of the Thruway was lifted Thursday night. Gov. Andrew Cuomo had vowed to crack down on violators a day after a semitrailer crash near Rochester caused a pileup that injured a state trooper.
In New York City, about 200 firefighters battling a blaze in a commercial building took turns getting warm on buses.
Schools remained closed in Buffalo, New York, but students headed back to school in other parts of the Midwest. Educators in Fargo, North Dakota, were busy Thursday after two days of canceled classes. For Superintendent Rupak Gandhi, who came to Fargo last summer from Colorado, this week has been “a personal new.”
“I’ve had experience with cold and snow days, but negative 50? Absolutely not,” he said.
The dangerously cold and snowy weather is suspected in at least 18 deaths, including a man found frozen in his backyard Thursday in suburban Milwaukee and a man who died Friday after rear-ending a salt truck in Indiana.
But relief from the bitter Midwestern cold is as close as the weekend. Rockford, Illinois, was at a record-breaking minus 31 degrees (minus 35 Celsius) on Thursday morning but should be around 50 degrees (10 Celsius) on Monday. Other previously frozen areas could see temperatures of 55 degrees (13 Celsius) or higher.
The dramatic warm-up will offer a respite from the bone-chilling cold that canceled school, closed businesses and halted trains. But potholes will appear on roads and bridges weakened by the freeze-thaw cycle. The same cycle can crack water mains and homeowners’ pipes. Scores of vehicles will be left with flat tires and bent rims.
Joe Buck, who manages Schmit Towing in Minneapolis, said he’s already taking calls for Monday to deal with a backlog of hundreds of stalled vehicles.
In Detroit, where some water mains are almost 150 years old, city workers were dealing with dozens of breaks, said Palencia Mobley, deputy director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
The thawing of the pipes can sometimes inflict greater damage than the initial freeze. Bursts can occur when ice inside starts to melt and water rushes through the pipe, or when water in the pipe is pushed to a closed faucet by expanding ice.
Elsewhere, a bridge in the western Michigan community of Newaygo, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Grand Rapids was closed as the ice-jammed Muskegon River rose above flood stage. Officials in Buffalo, New York, watched for flooding on the Upper Niagara River because of ice.
In other signs that the worst of the deep freeze was ending, Xcel Energy on Thursday lifted a request to its Minnesota natural gas customers to temporarily lower their thermostats to ease concerns about the fuel supply.
Earlier in the day, several cities set record lows, including Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which set a daily record low of minus 30 degrees (minus 34 Celsius).
Chicago’s temperature dropped to a low of around minus 21 degrees (minus 30 Celsius) on Thursday, slightly above the city’s lowest-ever reading of minus 27 degrees (minus 32 Celsius) in January 1985. Milwaukee’s low was minus 25 degrees (minus 31 Celsius), and Minneapolis recorded minus 24 degrees (minus 31 Celsius). Wind chills were lower still.
Masters, from Weather Underground, said the polar vortex was “rotating up into Canada” and not expected to return in the next couple of weeks. If it does return in late February, “it won’t be as intense.”
Still, memories of the dangerous cold were bound to linger.
In Illinois, at least 144 people visited hospital emergency rooms for cold-related injuries over two days. Most of the injuries were hypothermia or frostbite, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health.
The effect on the overall economy was not expected to be that great, in part because there were no widespread power outages such as there are in a hurricane.
“People may be in their homes, but they can do things such as online shopping,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “Life goes on.”
Karoub reported from Detroit. Associated Press writers Martin Crutsinger in Washington; Chris Chester in New York City; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; Amy Forliti in Minneapolis; Corey Williams and Ed White in Detroit; Blake Nicholson in Bismarck, North Dakota; Dave Kolpack in Fargo, North Dakota; and Caryn Rousseau and Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this story.
What is frostbite? An ER doc explains
Updated February 1, 2019
Author: Jeremiah Escajeda, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, University of Pittsburgh
Disclosure statement: Jeremiah Escajeda does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Pittsburgh provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Frostbite cannot be overcome with a tough mental edge, despite what Kentucky’s governor, Matt Bevin, might believe. As much of the country faces sub-zero temperatures and high wind speeds, frostbite is a real health hazard.
I’m an emergency medicine physician and EMS medical director and have seen many cases of frostbite, a common problem that we encounter this time of year. It generally affects those who are outside the longest in these frigid conditions.
Frostbite occurs when tissue is frozen and irreversible damage occurs. It causes the cells and small blood vessels to freeze. Freezing a cell destroys it. All it takes for this to happen are freezing temperatures: 32 degrees F or lower.
However, there are other factors at play. Alcohol consumption results in dilation of blood vessels, which cause the sensation of warmth, but increases the risk of frostbite.
High wind speeds make the situation more dangerous by accelerating the cooling process. For instance, if you are exposed to a temperature of minus 5 degrees F, and also wind speeds of 35 mph, this creates a wind chill of minus 34 degrees, and frostbite can develop within 10 minutes. As the temperature falls further and the wind speed increases, frostbite can be triggered in even less time.
Frostbite can occur to any tissue, but there are some areas of the body that are more vulnerable. Exposed regions like the nose, cheeks, ears, chin and even the corneas, the outermost layer of our eyes, are at risk. In addition, our extremities, like our fingers and toes, are most likely to be exposed. Toes, despite being sheltered directly from the elements, can develop frostbite. That’s because our bodies naturally limit blood flow in the cold, by causing our outermost blood vessels in the skin to constrict and diverting the warm blood to our core and vital organs. With less blood to warm our fingers and toes, they freeze faster.
The warning signs of frostbite
To protect yourself, limit your time outside and cover up your face, ears and fingers. Wear well-insulted socks. Most importantly, do not dismiss the symptoms of frostnip, the precursor to frostbite.
Frostnip is reversible blood vessel constriction that causes a pins and needle sensation – burning pain and some red discoloration of skin. If you experience frostnip, you are on your way to developing frostbite. Get out of the cold and warm up that affected tissue. The ideal way to rewarm tissue is with warm water 104-108 degrees F. However, if this is painful to do, I strongly recommend that you go to an emergency department for more definitive care.
We grade frostbite with similar criteria to burns, in degrees. The most common frostbite occurs to an otherwise healthy person who is, for example, waiting for the bus. He or she might suffer a first- or second-degree frostbite. We treat these injuries with rewarming and local wound care. Severe cases, third-degree or even fourth-degree frostbite, can result in amputation, but this is rare and there are other treatment options in the hospital.
If your symptoms don’t go away after rewarming, go to the emergency department.
Salt doesn’t melt ice – here’s how it actually makes winter streets safe
February 1, 2019
Author: Julie Pollock, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, University of Richmond
Disclosure statement: Julie Pollock receives research funding from the University of Richmond, the Mary Louise Andrews Award for Cancer Research from the Virginia Academy of Sciences, the Jeffress Memorial Trust, and the Beckman Foundation.
Partners: University of Richmond provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Brrr … it’s cold out there! Children are flocking to the television in hopes of hearing there will be a snow day; the bread and milk aisles at grocery stores are empty because of an impending snow storm; and utility trucks are out spraying salt or salt water on the roads.
We all know why the first two happen – kids are excited for a day off of school filled with hot chocolate and snowmen. Adults are stocking up on necessities. But what’s up with those trucks?
They’re working to protect drivers from slippery conditions by spraying rock salt or a solution of salt water to prevent ice formation. This salt is very similar to the salt you have on your dinner table – it’s the same sodium chloride, NaCl. There are some proprietary mixtures that contain other salts – such as potassium chloride (KCl) and magnesium chloride (MgCl) – but they’re not as commonly used.
Road salt isn’t as pure as what you use on your food; it has a brownish gray color, mostly due to mineral contamination. Subjecting the environment to this salt via runoff can have some unintended consequences including negative effects on plants, aquatic animals and wetlands.
But it’s a cheap and effective way to protect roads from ice due to a simple scientific principle: freezing point depression of solutions. The freezing point of pure water, the temperature at which it becomes ice, is 32 degrees Fahrenheit. So if there’s snow, sleet or freezing rain and the ground is 32 F or colder, solid ice will form on streets and sidewalks.
If the water is mixed with salt, though, the freezing temperature of the solution is lower than 32 F. The salt impedes the ability of the water molecules to form solid ice crystals. The degree of freezing point depression depends on how salty the solution is.
It’s important to note that the salt must be in a solution with liquid water in order for this principle to be obeyed. That’s why many cities spray a salt solution before any ice forms.
Salt that’s dumped on top of ice relies on the sun or the friction of car tires driving over it to initially melt the ice to a slush that can mix with the salt and then won’t refreeze. Pre-treating with solid salt relies on the warmer road surface to initially melt any snow or freezing rain so that it can properly mix with the salt. This is also why pre-treatment of bridges – which are colder than other roads – does not typically work, and why you see “bridge freezes before road” signs.
These salt solutions decrease the freezing temperature of water to around 15 F. So, unfortunately for folks facing truly frigid temps, treating with salt won’t get rid of ice on their roads.
An alternative strategy used at these lower temperatures is putting sand on the ice. Sand doesn’t change the melting temperature, it just provides a rough surface for your tires to prevent slipping and sliding.
The science of freezing point depression can be applied to any solution, and many research groups have focused on developing alternatives with fewer negative environmental consequences. They include additives such as molasses and beet juice. So maybe you can look forward to cleaning not just white salt off the bottom of your jeans after a winter walk, but pink salt as well.
Huge swing in temperatures provide prime conditions for potholes
ODOT crews will be out in force
COLUMBUS – We’ve gone from sub-zero temperatures to highs near 60 degrees in parts of Ohio within just a few days. Mix in some rain and snow and conditions are perfect for the formation of potholes.
Potholes are a common nuisance, particularly during the winter season when the freeze/thaw cycle weakens the pavement. This happens when water seeps into cracks in the pavement, then expands as it freezes. When temperatures warm up, and the ice melts, the pavement contracts, allowing even more moisture in to freeze and thaw. Add traffic on top and the pavement will eventually fail, creating a pothole. Roadways with a high volume of traffic are particularly prone to pothole formation.
Not only should drivers be extra alert for potholes over the next several days, but also our crews working to fill them.
“Our crews have been working around the clock to ensure our roads are as safe as possible,” said Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jack Marchbanks. “When they aren’t spending twelve-hours in a truck plowing snow, they’re working on the roadway patching potholes.”
Already this winter, ODOT has used 2,574 tons of asphalt to repair potholes. That’s up from 1,892 tons at the same time last year. Our crews have spent more than 39,000 hours – equivalent to 70 years – patching potholes this winter.
Potholes on ODOT-maintained roadways, which include state and U.S. routes outside of municipalities and all interstates, can be reported by clicking here. Potholes on local roadways should be reported to the agency responsible for their maintenance.
How will bankrupt utility deal with wildfires from now on?
By BRIAN MELLEY
Thursday, January 31
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Big corporations forced into bankruptcy by liability lawsuits often take the offending product off the market and try to move on. That’s what happened with the Dalkon Shield birth control device, asbestos and silicone breast implants.
But when the nation’s biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, comes out of bankruptcy, it will face the same danger that put it in financial peril in the first place: wildfires.
As the case makes it through the courts, the industry and the public will be watching closely to see what steps PG&E takes to control its legal exposure to future blazes in an era in which climate change is likely to make such disasters more common.
Will PG&E invest more in preventive maintenance to keep power lines from starting fires, adopting more aggressive tree-trimming and brush-clearing practices? Will it fortify its equipment better? Will it shut off the power in certain areas when the fire risk is high?
“Where other companies have been able to say, ‘We’re going to deal with hazards we caused in the past through bankruptcy,’ PG&E somehow has to find a solution to the fact that California is going to have drought conditions for a very long time,” said Jared Ellias, a law professor at the University of California Hastings School of Law in San Francisco. “How do you solve the liability crisis that they face?”
PG&E is the nation’s first utility forced into bankruptcy by potentially massive legal bills from wildfires. It filed for Chapter 11 reorganization this week to deal with roughly 1,000 lawsuits and potentially tens of billions of dollars in claims over several of California’s devastating blazes in 2017-18.
One was the nation’s deadliest, most destructive wildfire in a century: the blaze in November that leveled the Northern California town of Paradise, killed at least 86 people and destroyed nearly 15,000 homes. The cause is still under investigation, though PG&E had reported problems with equipment near where the fire started. PG&E was found responsible for 17 other fires that tore through Northern California since 2017.
The bankruptcy filing could lead to smaller payouts for fire victims, whose claims will most likely be heard by a judge, a step that could reduce the risk of excessive and vengeful jury verdicts. Bankruptcy could also lead to higher bills for customers of PG&E, which supplies natural gas and electricity to 16 million people in Northern and central California.
The case could be an early glimpse of the financial pressures utilities could face as a result of climate change.
In the past, utilities have sought protection in bankruptcy court because of such things as nuclear reactors that didn’t pay off or costly fluctuations in the electricity market.
“This time around you have a whole different problem,” said David Wiggs, who was chairman and CEO at the Texas-based El Paso Electric Co. in 1992 when it became the second utility since the Depression to declare bankruptcy. “Claims of fire damage are not normal. That is a lot of liability that is not your normal utility expense.”
Under the law in California, a public utility is liable if its equipment caused a fire, even if the company wasn’t shown to be negligent. Some of the lawsuits, however, have accused PG&E of inadequate maintenance and other failings.
PG&E will have to develop a business plan that shows it is not likely to end up in bankruptcy court again. How it does that is not clear at this point, but it may have to address how to minimize liability from future fires in a warming world.
Some possible solutions have been proposed in a separate criminal case where the company is on probation over a 2010 gas line explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
The federal judge overseeing that case criticized the company’s wildfire safety record and proposed earlier this year that it remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines in high winds and shut off the electricity when fire is a risk, regardless of the inconvenience to customers or loss of profit.
PG&E has said that is unrealistic, it could cost $150 billion and that lives could be endangered if it cuts power.
As PG&E spends the next two to three years reorganizing, other utilities are likely to be watching.
“They’re on notice,” said Robert Rasmussen, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “I think a lot of these fires are caused by extreme conditions that are brought on by climate change. I’m sure they’re struggling with what to do.”
Associated Press video journalist Haven Daley in San Francisco contributed to this report.