Bitter cold temperatures and increased wind chill gripping the Midcoast during the last week of the year led to many residents struggling with heating problems, frozen pipes and dead car batteries. It has also led to an increase in the danger to the homeless living in our community.

Mayor Valli Geiger called for opening city buildings Dec. 29 as warming shelters for those in need. Residents were advised they could go to the Rockland Public Library, the City Hall Council Chambers and the Flanagan Center (Rec Center) during hours of operation to get out of the cold (City Hall till 4:30 p.m.; Flanagan Center till 8 p.m. and library till 8 p.m.)

"A 2011 Penquis study showed about half the people in Knox county struggle to pay their utility bills," Geiger said Dec. 29. "This cold snap is lasting much longer than usual and the shelter in Rockport has hundreds of people on their waiting list… Pinny Beebe-Center told me she was working with a homeless older man who was sleeping in his car. We also had a recent death of a young man sleeping in a storage box.

"I just found myself worrying about how so many people with or without homes, but on limited incomes, would manage in this kind of cold," she continued. "The lines at the food pantry have many more people than ever before including families. I hope no one will need them, but if they do, I want there to be some place to go."

"Our average high during December is typically in the 30s with lows in the upper teens to mid 20s," said meteorologist Tyler Southard. "Temperatures steadily dropped in the wake of the Christmas snowstorm."

High temperatures have dropped to the single digits for the end of December with lows ranging -5 to -15 across the Midcoast, which is 20 to 30 degrees below the normal. Wind chill values ranged from 0 to -30 through the end of the week.

This cold pattern will continue into the first week of January.

"Large ridges of high pressure over the western United States and over the North Atlantic have pushed warmer air into the northern latitudes, displacing arctic cold further south into the eastern United States," Southard explained.

Executive Director Stephanie Primm of the Knox County Homeless Coalition and Hospitality House said there is more of a need in the community than people realize among our homeless population. She said people live in cars, tents in the woods and storage sheds, seemingly invisible most of the time.

"It is deadly," she said of these temperatures.

She said those living in their cars can hold out while they have fuel to run their heaters, but the coalition is very concerned about their safety and that of other homeless in the area.

There are about 150 homeless people in the Knox-Waldo-Lincoln-county area, most in Knox County, and the only homeless shelter serving them is Hospitality House on Old County Road in Rockport with 22 beds.

About 50 percent of those homeless are children.

Primm said it is often very difficult for homeless people to admit that they need help and take the step of walking into a shelter, but weather like this prompts more to seek aid. In addition to housing them at the shelter, in some cases, hotel rooms are provided. She noted it takes money, but the coalition is partnered with some local hotels which provide discounts for this service.

She said the homeless problem in the community is driven by several factors including low-paying jobs (most are very hardworking people with jobs, she added), lack of health care, lack of affordable housing, lack of childcare and lack of transportation. Many have had to struggle with mental health issues, past abuse, PTSD and other factors making it more difficult for them to live independently.

The Knox County Emergency Management Agency has blankets available for law enforcement in the area to give to those in need.

"Be aware of the dangers of how cold it is, especially considering young children if they need to be outside for any length of time as well as anyone's pets," said Knox County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Tim Carroll. "If anyone has elderly neighbors, always a good idea to check on them if you can to make sure they have heat and are OK."

"As always if anyone has concerns of another's safety, please call dispatch and they will communicate to the necessary parties to check on someone," he said.

He added that there are many slippery spots on the roads so people should beware and drive safely.

Shorty's Towing in Rockland has seen increase in the need for people dealing with dead car batteries and car doors freezing shut. Tom Cain of the company noted the importance of having cars serviced in preparation for the winter by having antifreeze levels checked. In addition, the cold can lead to deflation of tires, so residents should check their tires before driving off to work on these bitter mornings.

He noted this has kept members of the company's three-man crew busy working all hours.

"You're helping somebody out, and that makes it all worth it," he said.

Local heating oil companies have also seen an increase in need in the area including more work into the night.

"Absolutely, we've been out straight for four days," said Leni Gronros of Pen Bay Oil in Rockport.

He urged residents to remember to have their heating systems serviced during the summers to prepare for the winter freeze. One of the areas that has been hit hard has been outside oil tanks, which "gel up" in the extreme cold.

Maritime Energy President Susan Ware Page said her company has had to put scheduled work on hold to deal with emergency calls. She reported many people in the area in need of oil on an emergency basis, leading to an increase in the number of customers.

The workload became so bad that the company asked the Governor's office for a temporary waiver in the Department of Transportation's limit on the number of hours drivers can work. She acknowledged the limit is there to avoid driver fatigue and increase safety, but said there is a need during this crisis to get oil delivered to Mainers in the cold. She added that several other states had already lifted the limit on hours of service.

Shortly after talking to her, the Governor's office sent out a press release stating that Gov. Paul LePage signed an emergency proclamation to ensure Maine residents receive heating oil deliveries without delay and throughout the holiday weekend.

“The Northeast is experiencing a lengthy cold snap with record low temperatures. Our oil delivery drivers need the flexibility to be on the roads so Mainers can heat their homes over the next several days,” said LePage.

The State of Emergency proclamation will enable the granting of a waiver from the Federal Department of Transportation to allow heating oil delivery personnel to stay on the road longer to make sure homes and businesses stay warm.

The Governor also reminds drivers who are picking up extra hours to remain safe on the roadways. “We want to keep Mainers warm, but drivers and business owners should understand their limitations too,” said LePage.

The order is in effect until January 5 or until the Governor declares the emergency is over.

Anecdotally we are also hearing reports of people around the area with frozen pipes. We called one local plumber who said he was not sure about other people, but his own pipes were frozen and that was what he was dealing with.

Anyone in an emergency related to the cold should call 911 for help. To find out locations of warming centers in your area, call 211.

Dan Dunkle can be reached at ddunkle@villagesoup.com or 594-4401 ext. 122.