Zero hours: Central Mass. hunkers down for record cold temperatures, wind chill
WORCESTER — Ensuring residents are protected from the arctic temperatures and wind chill arriving in the city this weekend has become an all-hands-on-deck effort between the municipal leaders, community organizations and residents.
With historic temperature drops expected Friday and into Saturday morning, the city has opened a warming center at the Worcester Senior Center at 128 Providence St., where people will find shelter, food, and medical support until conditions have improved.
The warming center opened at 8 a.m. Friday and is scheduled to remain open until 6 p.m. Saturday, according to the city.
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“Having the opportunity and the fact that our city even does it is fantastic,” said Heather Forchilli, who took a day off work to volunteer at the center. “It’s fantastic because people need basic shelter and now have the opportunity. I couldn't imagine being stuck outside involuntarily.”
Forchilli recently became a member of Worcester Community Emergency Response Team (WCERT), making Friday’s volunteer experience her first.
“We went through pretty comprehensive training, and our final exercise was how to set up a shelter and what goes into it,” Forchilli said. “It's good to see it actually put into practice."
Working with Forchilli was Lois Luniewicz, a WCERT volunteer who is coordinator for the Worcester Regional Medical Reserve Corps.
“I think any way that I can be of help is important, but also it's really good experience to be in a setting like this and to see how things are run,” Luniewicz said. “Whatever use in the future I may be able to help with.”
Wind chill warning
While the center was empty Friday morning, organizers and volunteers were expecting to see more people later in the day as temperatures continued to drop.
The National Weather Service issued a wind chill warning from Friday morning until Saturday afternoon. The Weather Service predicted that the temperature would fall to 3 degrees by 5 p.m., with a wind chill of 19 below zero; and plunge to 10 below zero overnight, with a wind chill of 36 below zero and wind gusts up to 55 miles an hour.
The conditions could impact flights at Worcester Regional Airport and Logan Airport in Boston, and lead to power outages. National Grid announced it has crews on standby to respond over the weekend.
The Worcester Public Schools were closed on Friday, as were Abby Kelley Foster Charter School, Nativity School of Worcester, and Quinsigamond Community College.
Leah Bradley, CEO of Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance, said the conditions will likely increase the number of people seeking shelter.
In addition to people experiencing homelessness, she said, people may be struggling to afford utility bills this winter and unable to properly heat their homes.
“Having a place for folks to come to stay warm, on nights that are really extremely cold like this, is really important,” Bradley said. “It's really a matter of life and death.”
City shelters all set
The United Way of Central Massachusetts was one of several organizations that helped recruit volunteers to set up and staff the shelter. Michael Onofrio, deputy director of the city’s Emergency Management Department, said there were more than enough volunteers to get through the weekend.
More:How to stay safe when record cold temperatures hit New England
The warming center at the Senior Center is part of a larger comprehensive emergency plan the city has in place for incidents involving extreme temperatures or other hazards.
Residents will find hot meals available until the center closes Saturday evening, 50 cots for those looking to stay overnight — more are available if space is needed, Onofrio said — as well as medical support for nonemergencies from staff on-site.
There will also be entertainment in the form of books and games, and staff members who are available for a chat.
For others, the frigid temperatures present an opportunity to get outdoors and hit the slopes.
Cutting 25 mph winds didn't deter the Wachusett Mountain skiers and snowboarders who braved the slopes Friday.
Even though the mercury showed 13 degrees around 10:30 a.m. Friday, that didn't hold back the new skiers.
At the progression hill, Clara Alexander of Malden slowly crept up on her beginner's skis while bundled up with two winter jackets, three pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, gloves and a scarf that almost completely covered her face.
As she lagged behind her friends who were higher up on the hill, she took her time at her day two of skiing.
"So far it's OK, but I'm sure it will be bad after a few hours," Alexander said with a candid smile.
Among the dozens of more experienced skiers at Wachusett, Ben Gozalici of Plymouth strapped on his skiing boots with friends by their car for their weekly skiing session. They said that the low temperatures would not bother them, even though it was colder than they had anticipated.
"We had checked the weather last Monday and it showed much higher, so we think it changed," said Gozalici. "I just put on an extra jacket on. It's good enough.
"Also, there are less people when it's colder, so that's good."
Why the frigid temperatures?
You might be asking yourself, "why are we getting this deep freeze when climate change and warming temperatures have dominated the discussion for years?"
The answer, according to a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, has a lot to do with warming in the Arctic and its effect on the polar vortex, the swirling winds high above the North Pole that hold in extremely cold air. When the vortex is disrupted, cold air escapes and we can get encased in uncomfortably cold temperatures.
"The explanation is that warming seems to drive instabilities in the atmosphere," HC professor Sara Gran Mitchell said in a statement. "When the Arctic is cold, a high-altitude air stream (the 'polar vortex,' it's like the jet stream) generally circles it pretty tightly, keeping cold air near the pole. As the northern regions and oceans warm, this air stream is changing, causing warm air to invade the polar regions and cold air to get forced southward."
While we're bundled up this weekend, don't think that the number of cold days will outnumber warm ones.
As Mitchell explains, climate change will see to that.
"I should also add that with global warming, on average we expect to see more 'unusually' warm days than cold days, but it doesn't mean we will stop getting cold weather entirely," Mitchell said. "Global warming is measured in terms of temperature change over decades — there is still a lot of room for extreme highs and lows as the overall temperature increases."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Central Mass. hunkers down for record cold temperatures, wind chill