Maine social service agencies plead for blankets, clothing

PORTLAND – The weather turned dangerously cold Thursday, so cold that the Salvation Army opened a shelter, the governor declared a limited emergency to allow heating oil companies to make more deliveries, and Portland officials asked the public to donate blankets and clothing for the homeless.

The city hit a low of 4 degrees below zero Thursday morning. This did not break the previous low-temperature record of 21 degrees below zero for the date set in 1948, but National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Legrow said winds that gusted to 25 mph made it feel a lot colder.

By Thursday night, the temperature was 6 degrees, the wind was blowing at 17 mph, and the chill factor had dropped to 13 below zero. The chill factor was expected to drop to 20 below by early Friday morning.

One of the coldest places in northern New England was atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Legrow said it was 26 degrees below zero Thursday night on the summit, but with winds reaching 74 mph the wind chill was 73 below zero.

Legrow said the cold stretch was expected to continue through the weekend, with a modest warmup expected by Monday when temperatures should reach the freezing mark.

"We know it’s a dangerous situation. Some people have been sleeping in cars," said Maj. Norman Garcia, who opened the Salvation Army’s gymnasium at the corner of Church and 6th streets in Old Orchard Beach for anyone needing a warm place to sleep. It will remain open through Sunday. "Just keep in mind it won’t be the Ritz Hotel."

Gov. Paul LePage authorized a limited emergency declaration that will allow oil delivery drivers to exceed their normal work shifts. The order was designed to ensure timely delivery of heating fuel to homeowners who have run out.

The governor’s declaration, which exempts drivers from federal rules limiting the number of hours they can spend on the road, came after the state received reports from the Maine Energy Marketers Association warning that oil companies were falling behind in their deliveries.

"This effort will allow heating fuel to be delivered to Maine families when they need it during this frigid weather," LePage said in a statement.

Rob McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said the declaration will remain in effect through Feb. 1.

In Portland on Thursday, the city’s overcrowded shelters were gearing up for another busy night.

The shelters have become so crowded in recent days that the city has been forced to open an office building on Lancaster Street, where homeless individuals can sleep sitting upright in a chair.

"It is an absolute crisis situation," said Mark Swann, director of the Preble Street Resource Center. Preble Street was at capacity Wednesday night, as was Oxford Street, a city-operated shelter.

In addition to serving about 1,200 meals a day at Preble Street, Swann said, "we are desperately trying to keep people supplied with socks, hats and coats, anything that will keep them warm in this cold."

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said that the Oxford Street Shelter and the city’s Emergency Family Shelter need donations of new blankets, coats, vests, gloves, mittens, hats, scarves, earmuffs, long underwear and winter socks. Clegg said donations of these items are down this year.

Swann said homeless people begin to line up outside shelters by mid-afternoon on cold days like Wednesday and Thursday. Inside, they can sleep on a cot or floor mat.

Those that don’t get a spot at the shelter are directed to a "warming station" inside a city office building on Lancaster Street. It’s warm inside but there is no place to lie down — people must sit in chairs for several hours.

"There seems to be an increased anxiety and fear because people are worried about getting a place to sleep. They also know this kind of cold can be the difference between life and death," said Josh O’Brien, director of the Oxford Street Shelter.

Nate Mick, the doctor in charge of Maine Medical Center’ emergency room, said he had seen no cases of people suffering from cold-related injuries such as frostbite on Thursday. He credited the city’s homeless shelters.

Clegg said the Oxford Street Shelter began opening at 1:30 p.m. this week to provide a place for people to warm up during the day.

Mick said it’s important for people in extreme cold to stay hydrated. "The smoke you see when you breathe is water vapor, which means you are losing liquid from your body," he said.


Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: