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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