Hard freeze closes schools; cows, crops get extra care

How cold is it?

Schools closed, homeless shelters added beds, strawberries were covered, pets spent the night inside and 1,200 Kleinpeter cows received extra care as south Louisiana kicked into frenzied activity to prepare for Tuesday’s blast of arctic air.

Forecasters predicted south Louisiana would see some of the coldest temperatures since 2010 with Tuesday morning’s low expected to be 18 degrees.

“It’s going to be a three-day deal,” said Barry Keim, state climatologist, on Monday.

The cold snap started overnight Sunday, and when people in the Capital City awoke Monday, they found temperatures as low as 26 degrees with a wind chill as low as 14 degrees.

The Arctic air mass that dropped temperatures Sunday evening in the northern part of the nation is the same air mass barreling through Louisiana.

“It’s one, big linked system,” Keim said. “Temperatures in this realm don’t happen very often.”

The good news is relief lies ahead, as temperatures are expected to start rising Wednesday night. “By the weekend, we could be nipping at 70 degrees,” Keim said.

Until then, a hard freeze warning for the greater Baton Rouge area, New Orleans and Lafayette will be in effect through Tuesday morning, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures were expected to fall below freezing at sunset Monday and stay below freezing through mid- to late morning Tuesday.

Louisiana Public Service Commission Chairman Eric Skrmetta instructed utilities not to disconnect services even if consumers have unpaid or past-due balances.

The executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Michael Acaldo, said when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, an emergency plan goes into effect to provide extra relief for the homeless.

About 31 extra beds were set up at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s men’s shelter on Convention Street and up to five extra beds at the women and children’s shelter.

That puts the total close to 100 beds at the two shelters.

“When it drops below 40, our philosophy is to get everyone off the streets,” Acaldo said. “When we say freeze plan, it means we pretty much have an open-door policy” except for people who are drunk or on illegal drugs.

Acaldo said the homeless will get “a warm bed, a hot meal and can watch Auburn and Florida State go at it.”

The men are usually asked to leave at 6:30 a.m., but with the cold temperatures, they will be allowed to stay until lunch, Acaldo said, while the women and children can stay as long as they like.

People looking for a place to stay during the day can spend some time at the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless’ one-stop homeless services center at 153 N. 17th St., said Randy Nichols, executive director of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless.

Nichols said the emergency plan has been in place for several years and many of the homeless in Baton Rouge are aware of it.

Maj. Stephen Long, head of the Salvation Army in Louisiana, said the organization will put out about 10-15 extra bunks in addition to its normal capacity of 25 beds at its facility on 7361 Airline Highway.

“During cold nights like this, it’s always an emergency, and we always open up to make sure we help as many people as possible,” Long said.

Nancy Malone, public affairs director for the South Louisiana Region of the American Red Cross, said if emergency management officials in Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes request help in opening emergency shelters, the Red Cross will provide it, whether it’s supplies, staffing or food.

“It’s just real specific to the parish request,” she said.

The East Baton Rouge Council on Aging closed its senior center locations Tuesday, and only essential personnel will be working at the Florida Boulevard location. The agency has blankets and heaters that can be distributed to seniors first and then to disabled Entergy customers on a first-come, first-served basis.

The record cold weather prompted the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to delay school Tuesday for two hours, with middle and high schools starting at 9:10 a.m. and elementary schools at 10:30 a.m.

School employees are to report at their normal times to ensure that schools open at the regular times for children who arrive early. Children who take the bus, though, won’t get breakfast at school because they’ll arrive too close to lunchtime, school officials said. The school district will finish the day at the normal closing times.

The superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Melanie Verges, said all Catholic school employees are scheduled to arrive at normal times Tuesday but children who show up two hours later because of their buses won’t be penalized.

Baker, Zachary, St. Helena, Central Community, Kenilworth Science and Technology charter and East Feliciana schools are closed to students on Tuesday.

The Humane Society of Louisiana urged pet and farm animal owners to shelter their animals during the cold weather.

Ideally, dogs and cats should be kept inside during all cold spells, said Jeff Dorson, Humane Society executive director. Unheated dog houses do not offer enough protection from the freezing weather, he said.

“We are being flooded with calls, text messages and emails concerning animals left out in the cold without any shelter,” Dorson said. “Many of the text messages and emails have photos of the animals, predominately dogs, shivering in the cold.”

Kleinpeter Dairy Farm said it prepared about 1,200 cows at its farm off La. 16 near Pine Grove to get through the cold weather.

The cows’ teats were coated with a special dip to keep them from getting frostbite, a farm spokesman said in a statement. The cows also were covered in extra bedding.

Crews also worked to make sure hundreds of water tanks don’t freeze so the cows can continue to drink about 125 gallons of water a day, the spokesman said.

In Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes, strawberry farmers were left to find ways to protect their berries in hopes of preserving their crops before peak harvest time in a couple months.

Rhonda Poche, owner of Landry-Poche Strawberry Farm in Springfield, said her crops were triple-covered with blankets to keep as much heat surrounding the strawberries as possible.

Workers planned on keeping the blankets on the berries until Thursday at the earliest, Poche said.

“We won’t know if we’ve had any damage or anything until after we’re able to uncover (the berries),” Poche said. “We’ve got our fingers crossed, and we’re just praying for the best right now.”

Margaret Blahut, owner of the Blahut Farm in Springfield, said her farm has already lost some strawberries in the two fields they’ve been able to cover with blankets. She said farmers weren’t able to cover another one of their fields.

She said she expects the cold weather to be among the worst she has seen in her years of farming.

“They’re probably going to freeze,” Blahut said of her crops. “It’s probably going to hurt us.”

While residents hurried to prepare for the cold snap, others worried about the danger that comes with freezing temperatures.

Eldon Ledoux, public information officer with the St. George Fire Protection District, urged caution as people try to keep warm during the next couple of days. Any space heater or appliances that create heat should be at least three feet away from any combustible materials, which includes clothes, drapes or tablecloths.

In addition, people should not plug space heaters into extension cords or plug in more than one heat-producing appliance into an electrical outlet at a time.

He also cautioned people to make sure that fireplace embers and ashes are disposed of correctly.

Too often, people will think the ashes are out, dispose of the material in a plastic trash can and then store the trash can by the house where a fire gets reignited. Instead, the cooled ashes should be put in a metal bucket and doused with water, he said.

Ledoux said one in seven home fires are caused by some kind of heating equipment.

“We see an uptick in fire calls during colder weather and in the winter months,” he said.