People urged to help vulnerable neighbors during deep freeze

The post-Christmas prolonged, dangerously cold weather across half the country has advocates for the homeless scrambling to get people off the streets and local officials urging residents to assist their elderly neighbors.

Residents from the Midwest to the Northeast were dealing with sub-freezing temperatures and wind chills, while those in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies were bracing for storms that forecasters warn can cause heavy mountain snow and freezing rain.

The cold is expected to continue through the holiday weekend and likely longer, according to the National Weather Service, prolonging a stretch of brutal weather blamed for vehicle crashes, emergency room visits and at least one death.

Wind chill advisories remained in place for many areas. Animal owners were urged to bring their pets indoors if possible or at least make sure they have sufficient warmth.

Forecasters warned people to be wary of hypothermia and frostbite from the arctic blast that has gripped a large swath from the Midwest to the Northeast, where the temperature, without the wind chill factored in, dipped to minus 32 (minus 35 Celsius) Thursday morning in Watertown, New York. Temperatures rose to minus 7 (minus 22 Celsius) early Friday morning.

Heavy snow was expected Friday in the Pacific Northwest, across the Cascade mountains and into the northern Rockies before gradually tapering off Saturday. As much as 2 to 3 feet of snow is possible in the highest terrain, while coastal regions were expected to see heavy rainfall.

About 30 crashes were reported on icy roadways Friday morning in Michigan, where below-freezing temperatures continue to envelop parts of the state.

A woman trying to maneuver her wheelchair on a cold, snowy night in Nebraska got a firetruck escort. Snow and construction items on the sidewalk forced her into a busy Omaha thoroughfare Tuesday. Firefighters returning to their station noticed her. They flipped on their lights and followed the woman until she reached her destination. She gave them a thumbs-up as they departed.

In South Dakota, an 83-year-old woman died from exposure to the cold. Police believe she crashed her car on a gravel road near the tiny rural town of Revillo then left the vehicle to look for help. They found her body in a ditch on Sunday.

Warming centers have been set up in some locations, including recreation centers across Cincinnati. Boston’s Pine Street Inn sent a van with outreach workers around to persuade people to spend the night inside, but some said they prefer the streets.

Segundo Rivera and Sean Stuart told the Boston Herald they were not comfortable spending the night in a shelter.

“We’ve lived out here so long it’s like honestly, this is comfortable for us,” Rivera said.

A shelter spokeswoman said that if people don’t want to go to a shelter, they’re given blankets, warm clothing and a hot beverage, and informed of the dangers of extreme cold.

The Ohio Department of Aging said older people are at increased risk from such severe cold, from medication side effects to falling risks. The department encouraged people to check on family members, friends and neighbors to make sure they’re warm enough and have their needed medications and sufficient food and water.

On Thursday, cold weather records were set from Arkansas to Maine, and the freezing air will linger through the weekend, reaching as far south as Texas and the Florida Panhandle.

In New Hampshire, the cold set a record for the day of minus 34 (minus 37 Celsius) atop the Northeast’s highest peak, Mount Washington.

In the Midwest, temperatures in Minneapolis aren’t expected to top zero (minus 18 Celsius) this weekend, and it likely will be in the teens (minus 11 Celsius to minus 7 Celsius) when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve in New York City.

A winter storm warning was in effect for much of Montana, calling for significant snowfall followed by dangerously cold temperatures as 2017 comes to an end.

“People like to think of themselves as being prepared for the weather and things like that,” Billings forecaster Dan Borsum said, “but this one will get your attention.”

By David Sharp

Associated Press