Near-record cold snap proves life-threatening, but weekend highs could reach 50s

Near-record cold snap proves life-threatening, but weekend highs could reach 50s
World-Herald News Service

The man lying on the ice along the bank of Carter Lake Wednesday morning was cold to the touch.

In the near-record cold that gripped the region Wednesday, Scott Demers was near death, according to emergency dispatchers and a police report.

Demers, 49, of Grand Island, suffered the most severe case of exposure of the half-dozen cases reported by Omaha-Council Bluffs area hospitals Wednesday. His body smelled of alcohol, police said, and he remained in critical condition Wednesday night at Nebraska Medical Center.

Relief from this week’s life-threatening cold has arrived. Winds have been blowing in from the south since Wednesday afternoon, and highs Thursday in Omaha are forecast to top 20 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. By Sunday, the highs could be in the 50s in Omaha.

But on Wednesday, most residents across the metro area hunkered down to wait out the cold. Homeless shelters overflowed. Local utilities reported near-record demand as people cranked up their furnaces, and house-bound students and families turned on their computers and gadgets. School and mail delivery were canceled. Omaha’s trash collection was suspended and will run a day late the rest of the week.

Throughout Wednesday, Omaha’s temperature flirted with the records. The low dropped to minus 14, 2 degrees shy of the 1965 record for Jan. 30, and the high peaked at 0, 1 degree shy of the “lowest high,” which was minus 1 on that date in 1996, according to the weather service.

At its lowest, the wind chill dropped to 37 below zero, said Corey Mead, a weather service meteorologist. And while the cold has been astonishing, it hasn’t been the historic weather that has struck other parts of the country. Omaha saw lower temperatures a year ago, when the temperature dropped to 20 below and 16 below on Jan. 1 and 2, respectively.

Nationally, at least eight deaths have been blamed on the weather, according to the Associated Press. About half of those were from exposure, including the exposure-related death of an 18-year-old pre-med student on the campus of the University of Iowa. Gerald Belz was unresponsive about 3 a.m., when wind chills were minus 51, according to television station KCRG.

Nationally, the cold disrupted airline travel, and that was true at Eppley Airfield. Airlines canceled 18 departing flights out of Omaha because of the extreme cold here and across the Midwest. Some incoming flights also were canceled.

And it kept the Nebraska State Patrol busy. Troopers responded to more than 100 calls for assistance Wednesday, the agency tweeted.

This week’s extreme cold has been a cruel reminder just how close some people live to the edge, said Candace Gregory, president and CEO of Omaha’s Open Door Mission.

“It has been a long day,” Gregory said. And Gregory wasn’t talking only about the homeless. The working poor, with hungry kids and drafty rental homes, had been stopping by, she said.

“We have people coming in asking for blankets for their homes, for their rental units,” she said. “And when children aren’t in school, they still need food. … We’ve seen a huge increase in our food program.”

By midday Wednesday, higher-than-usual natural gas use in the Omaha area had powered the Metropolitan Utilities District to one of its top five usage days since 1921, when the utility took over local natural gas delivery, said Tracey Christensen, an MUD spokeswoman. The utility tapped its stores of liquefied natural gas to supplement the gas it pulled from pipeline connections to the open market, she said. Doing so protects ratepayers against the spikes in prices that occur when demand shoots up.

The Omaha Public Power District also saw high demand for a winter day, said Laura King-Homan, an OPPD spokeswoman. The morning prework peak came within about 33 megawatts of the utility’s all-time winter peak of 1,773 megawatts in February 2018.

There is good news, though. This winter isn’t likely to see another outbreak of weather this cold, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Alan Reppert.

World-Herald staff writers Aaron Sanderford and Chris Peters contributed to this report.