Polar vortex sends Sussex into deep freeze

Temperatures reach record lows in Cape Region
With the Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse in the background, ice sheets – remnants of this week's big freeze – pile up near the point at Cape Henlopen State Park. The big chill is expected to break this weekend with the forecast high temperature Saturday, Jan. 11, nearing 60F. BY RON MACARTHUR
January 10, 2014

A rare polar vortex dropped temperatures in the Cape Region to record-breaking lows Jan. 6-7, wreaking havoc on the Cape Region's infrastructure and prompting school closings and public health warnings.

At about 7 a.m., Jan. 6, the temperature in Georgetown was recorded at 8 degrees, a new low, breaking the record of 9 degrees set in 1988, the National Weather Service says.

The frigid temperatures may have been the cause of a 12-inch water main break Wednesday morning at the intersection of Savannah Road and Third Street in downtown Lewes. Board of Public Works employees were unable to repair the leak during the day and were forced to shut down the city's entire water system at midnight.

Crews from the BPW and Harry Caswell worked together to fix the main by 1:50 a.m., said General Manager Darrin Gordon. The system was back up and running by 4 a.m. Mayor Jim Ford said he expected the city to be without water for five to six hours.

“This is what we do," Gordon said of the faster-than-expected fix. "We prepare for the worst-case scenario, and then we over perform."

Gordon said other pipe breaks were reported around Lewes, but no other major problems.

Georgetown officials also reported a broken 12-inch water main Jan. 9. Water was shut down for homes and businesses surrounding the break. At deadline, repair crews were on scene working to get the pipe fixed.

The record-breaking cold also stressed the services of Delmarva Power. Spokesman Matt Likovich said the minor outages popped up throughout the day, but customers were not without electric for long periods of time.

“There were some scattered outages here and there but nothing major,” he said.

PJM Interconnection, which maintains the power grid to which Delmarva Power is connected, saw record electricity use during the intense cold. Tuesday morning's electricity use peaked at 138,000 megawatts, eclipsing the previous high of 136,675 megawatts in 2007. PJM then saw a higher demand later in the day, as the peak use reached 141,312 megawatts in the evening hours.

With the chill bearing down on most of the country, many school administrators took precautions by closing schools Jan. 7. Cape Henlopen School District Superintendent Robert Fulton said it made sense.

“It was primarily based on the extremely cold temperatures, since we have a number of students who walk to school or stand at bus stops,” Fulton said.

Fulton said there is no specific temperature that triggers a call to close school. Schools were back in session Wednesday.

“Sure there are people concerned. We don't make this decision lightly,” he said. “But with wind chills in the negative numbers, we felt it was cold enough to close schools.”

With students safely warm at home, others turned their attention to the community's homeless population. Code Purple shelters opened throughout the state to get homeless people out of the extreme cold. The shelters are triggered whenever the temperature drops below 20 degrees.

The Immanuel Shelter at Epworth United Methodist Church and the Community Resource Center were available to take in folks from Kent and Sussex counties. Immanuel, typically a weekend operation, opens on an as-needed basis when temperatures dips below 30 degrees, said spokeswoman Nan Ruhl. The shelter offers a bed for the night, warm dinner and breakfast and counseling services. About 11 people were taken in Monday and Tuesday, she said, and they expected to be open the rest of the week.

“The first year we [opened] we had a lot of ice and snow and last year was relatively calm as far as snow. The cold was sporadic, but nothing like this constant cold,” Ruhl said. “This is new territory for us.”

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