December 14, 2013

Homeless urged to shelters as Maine braces for snowstorm

Some southern areas are expected to get 10 to 14 inches following days of unusually frigid weather.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

With temperatures frigid and this season’s first major snowfall approaching, outreach teams in Portland urged the homeless Friday to come into emergency shelters.

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Laurel Merchant stands in line in the cold with dozens of others as they wait to get in to the Oxford Street Shelter for the night. Friday, December 13, 2013. Gordon Chibroski, Staff Photographer

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Ten to 14 inches of snow are expected to fall Saturday night and Sunday along the southern Maine coast, with 6 to 10 inches predicted for interior southern and central Maine, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm will follow a bitterly cold streak of winter weather. In recent days, temperatures have been in the teens and single digits overnight, barely warming to freezing during the day.

Weather that cold is particularly hard on the homeless, said John Bradley, associate director of the Preble Street social service agency in Portland.

“We’ve been worrying about the weather for the last couple of days,” he said.

The agency’s outreach team has been going around to camps where homeless people are known to stay, to make sure that anyone who’s living outdoors has provisions to deal with the weather, and to let them know the storm is coming.

Peggy Lynch, team leader, said outreach workers pass out blankets and flameless candles, among other provisions, and emergency phone numbers so people can call for help.

“We left our cards and numbers in case it got really bad out there and they wanted to come in and ride out the storm,” she said. “Sometimes we can convince people to come in from the cold.”

Some homeless people who have been outdoors for a year or more have propane tent heaters, Lynch said.

She said she has noticed in the last year that more people in their late 20s and early 30s are living outdoors, and more couples.

On Friday evening, dozens of people stood outside Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter, waiting for the doors to open for check-in at 6:10 p.m.

Some said they had been in line since early afternoon. Others said they had been in the nearby public library or riding buses to stay warm.

Laurel Merchant had been outdoors all day. Dressed in two jackets and a sweater, she said she has been bundled up that way since November. “I’ve survived this long. I can survive more,” she said.

The number of people staying at the shelter tends to go down when the temperatures get frigid, said the shelter’s director, Josh O’Brien.

Last week, he said, the shelter averaged more than 250 people per night. There were 233 there on Thursday.

He attributes the drop to the fact that people don’t move around as much, so fewer new people come in.

A winter storm warning is in effect from Saturday evening to Sunday evening, and gusty winds are expected to cut visibility and make roads slick. The heavy snowfall will move northeast across the region, reaching the Penobscot Valley by midnight Saturday, the weather service reported.

While the inches may add up, the snow won’t be wet, said meteorologist David Epstein, who writes a weather blog on pressherald.com. Dry air will keep the snow light and fluffy, he said.

Gov. Paul LePage declared a limited emergency for the state Friday, effectively waiving certain federal rules on fuel transportation and extending the hours of service for heating fuel transportation and delivery trucks for two weeks.

He said the state’s propane inventories are 25 percent below normal, in part because Canadian supplies are down since the rail line for the fuel was shut down after last summer’s runaway train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Supply is also being squeezed in Maine because of increased demand in the West, where propane was used to dry crops in areas affected by wet weather.

Alan Dorr, director of procurement for Dead River Oil Co., said the 25 percent figure applies nationwide.

Several factors have contributed, he said, including the fact that it has been colder than usual nationwide and the United States is exporting more propane.

“Everybody is out looking for extra (propane),” said Dorr.

Most consumers and suppliers have locked in prices, but the spot market prices are about 30 to 40 percent higher, he said. Since most consumers have locked-in prices, they don’t feel the increase, he said.

In Maine, the railway shutdown hasn’t hurt supply, but it has added a seven- to 10-day delay in getting propane from Canada to Maine.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers contributed to this report. 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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