Extreme cold impacts area

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

A polar vortex gripped the Midwest with extreme cold last week, resulting in the lowest recorded temperatures in over two decades. 

During the stretch from Tuesday night, Jan. 29, through Thursday morning, Jan. 31, area residents reported thermometer readings as low as -35 degrees between McGregor and Monona, -40 degrees near Elkader and even -42 degrees outside Decorah. According to the National Weather Service out of La Crosse, wind chills made it feel more like the -50s.

The frigid air cancelled school and sporting events and prompted many businesses to shorten their hours or close entirely. Even the United States Postal Service suspended deliveries on Wednesday and Thursday.

School closed four straight days

MFL MarMac students missed four full days of school last week, the first due to snow and the remaining three because of the cold. In his time as superintendent, Dale Crozier said he hasn’t seen a stretch that cold, for that long,

“The -35-degree morning was the coldest actual Fahrenheit temperature that I’ve dealt with,” he remarked. “In the mid-1990s, there was a winter where we had a couple of days in a row in the -22 to -26 actual temp, and several other very cold days, but I don’t remember school being closed for this long in a row ever.”

Crozier credited the district’s transportation staff and bus drivers for their help during this time, by checking roads and constantly communicating with him.

“They and myself also communicate with other schools and we check several radars and real-time reports from different epicenters,” he said. 

Then, he added, “we have ‘the voice’ of MFL MarMac school delays and cancellations, who is Lori Vorwald. These people all work together as a team to make our system run effectively.”

The maintenance staff assured students and teachers would have fully-functioning buildings when school resumed.

“They watched the boilers, checked the valves regularly, as well as all aspects of the heating systems,” he said. “They also spend a lot of time out in the cold, getting our sidewalks and grounds ready for school.”

Crozier said the school board will review the district’s plan to meet its requirements, which will include some make-up days and changing of the calendar. On Monday, the district announced two make-up days: Friday, Feb. 15 and Monday, Feb. 18.

MMU deals with a few frozen pipes, lines

At McGregor Municipal Utilities (MMU), office manager Kris Eulberg said staff responded to just a few calls for frozen pipes or water lines.

“There may be more people who dealt with things on their own, who didn’t tell us,” she noted. People also might not have been immediately aware of problems, which could result in future calls for service.

“We hope for the best,” Eulberg said, “but Mother Nature takes its toll.”

She reasoned the snow that fell in the week prior to the deep freeze may have helped lessen the blow on mains, pipes and lines. 

“Around five years ago, there was no ground cover when it got cold. The frost kept going further and further,” she said. “There were a lot of frozen mains then. That created more problems for us.”

For the remainder of winter, Eulberg advised property owners to pay attention to their pipes, especially on outside walls. Run a trickle of water at night to prevent freezing.

“Trying to prevent something disastrous is worth the extra effort,” she said.

Service businesses remain open to assist drivers, home owners

While the cold prompted some area businesses to close or reduce hours last week, others remained operating at full speed to protect people from the brutal conditions.

That was the case at Birdnow Chevrolet, in Monona, even though it was challenging at times.

“Every employee has had their own challenges getting to and from work in these temperatures,” said general manger Justin Birdnow. “But we remained open because, in my eyes, we owe it to the town and surrounding area to be there for them when we are needed most.”

“We basically turned everyone who works here into a service person—how can we help take care of people’s cars not starting and what can we do to help them in these difficult times,” he explained. “I’m very blessed to have all of our great staff be so service-oriented, with our main goal to keep people safe and their cars running the best they can.”

Last Friday, Kurt Gerdes, owner of Kurt’s Plumbing and Heating, in Monona, said he was running on very little sleep.

“It started with Sunday evening, when the [snow] storm hit,” he noted. Not wanting to wait until morning, he ventured out to repair a furnace in a home near Garnavillo. He didn’t arrive home until after midnight.

“Monday and Tuesday, I had a lot of exhaust pipes,” Gerdes said. People also experienced issues with their LP tanks and the regulators on the sides of their homes.

On Wednesday, he received a call from a young couple in Farmersburg who said their carbon dioxide detector was going off. When Gerdes arrived, he found a problem with the furnace and urged the family, which had four children under age 7, to immediately vacate the home.

Unfortunately, he said, the cold temperature prohibited him from shutting down the furnace, so the family had to stay elsewhere last week.

“It wasn’t so much a fire hazard, but a safety hazard,” Gerdes explained. “I’ve checked on that house every day since then,” and he anticipated changing out the furnace on Monday.

“That was one that made you feel good,” he said, because he helped save those family members’ lives.

Gerdes also encouraged other people to get a carbon monoxide detector.

“They are very good, most of the time,” he said.

It’s important to change out furnace air filters too.

“Furnaces are just not designed for 38 below 0,” Gerdes remarked, “so you have to try to keep up with it.”

As the week continued, and the weather began to warm up, Gerdes said people were starting to see more frozen and thawed out water pipes.

Interestingly, on Friday, he installed an air conditioner at a local business that requires one to run year-round.

“My job is never boring,” he quipped.

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