Out In the Cold

Jack Frost Slams Santa Babylon

by Ethan Stewart

From Santa Maria to Carpinteria, the mercury dropped to record-setting lows last weekend, destroying crops, freezing flowers, bursting pipes, and creating a potentially deadly environment for homeless people throughout the county.

As the sun dipped low last Friday afternoon, the unusually brutal three-day cold snap dug its teeth into the Santa Barbara area, causing a scramble for warm and available beds at area shelters. Meanwhile, farmers — still reeling from last month’s wild wind storm that caused some $20 million in agricultural damage — crossed their fingers and employed devices including hot air machines, warm water baths for crop roots, and sun lamps in hopes of safeguarding crops against the incoming freeze. Though temperatures fluctuated all weekend, with lows varying according to localized wind patterns, the Santa Barbara Airport reported three straight days of record cold. Its thermometer bottomed out at about 25 degrees Fahrenheit in the wee hours of Sunday morning, while farms on Santa Maria’s eastside experienced lows of 17 degrees.

By Friday evening, with the Salvation Army and the Rescue Mission exceeding capacity and Casa Esperanza unwilling to surpass its 200-person limit due to staffing constraints, all eyes turned to the Red Cross and the county Office of Emergency Services (OES). But because the OES never declared a state of emergency — despite Governor Schwarzenegger’s early Friday afternoon declaration — the Red Cross faced a tricky financial obstacle to opening up emergency shelters, as their funds are usable only in declared emergencies. After much deliberation, an agreement was reached that the Red Cross would create three temporary “warming shelters” in Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara, with the OES footing the food and water bills.

According to Casa Esperanza Director Mike Foley, the Santa Barbara shelters — excluding the Red Cross locations — offer a total of 300 beds per night, while an informal January 2005 census counted some 839 homeless people in the city. Nevertheless, the Red Cross warming shelter at the Westside Community Center reported a maximum turnout of 32 bone-chilled individuals on Sunday night, with far fewer showing up on other nights. “There were certainly others out there that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it in to a shelter,” explained Red Cross coordinator Louise Colbert. Healthcare for the Homeless representatives were happy to report that nurses and physician’s assistants working in the shelters throughout the weekend didn’t treat a single patient with a cold weather-related malady.

The cold temperatures also equaled 24-hour workdays for the City of Santa Barbara’s water distribution staff, as 18 cast-iron water mains burst over the weekend and two more gave out on Tuesday morning. Though the snap was a far cry from the big chill of December 1990 — when 85 water mains exploded — city Water Superintendent John Peebles characterized the holiday weekend weather as a “three-day crisis” for his entire staff. Local plumbers spent much of the holiday weekend working as well, as they were called upon to repair the many residential water pipes that burst throughout the county.

As for the already hard-hit farming community, county Agricultural Commissioner Bill Gillette commented that, while it may be “a bit early to say for sure, there certainly was some damage.” He added, “And for some individuals, this stuff is pretty catastrophic.” The affected crops include avocado trees — which lost nearly 40 percent of their annual harvest just last month — lemon trees, various flowers, and early-season strawberries. But Gillette was quick to point out that local farmers fared much better than their counterparts in the San Joaquin Valley, whose crops were nearly decimated by the same cold front.

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures are expected to remain seasonably cool throughout the week, although the literally freezing nights appear to be over — at least for now.

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