RACINE COUNTY — Two deaths, businesses running low on supplies, and a whole lot of drivers needing help have been reported this week in the county as a result of the historic cold wave that has overcome the area.
Temperatures with wind chill dropped below negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit early Wednesday morning, the coldest it’s been in at least a decade, the National Weather Service reported.
Two county residents have died of weather-related causes, according to Racine County Medical Examiner Michael Payne.
Early Saturday morning, police found Deborah Jensen-Chambers, 65, of Mount Pleasant frozen to death outside the doorway to her house in the 5200 block of Sheridan Road. It was determined that Jensen-Chambers collapsed outside for unknown reasons and then died of cold exposure, Payne said.
The medical examiner is waiting on toxicology results to see if drugs or alcohol played a part in Jensen-Chambers’ collapse.
Then, on Monday, Mark Rickard, 69, of Dover died of a cardiac event while shoveling snow at his residence in the 4900 block of Schoen Road.
Payne said neighbors saw Rickard shoveling snow, then 15 minutes later saw him collapsed and clutching his heart. Rickard had a history of cardiac issues, Payne said.
Before shoveling, it is best to have some sort of warm-up activity because shoveling can be so physically taxing, Payne said.
In Wednesday and Thursday’s extreme cold that could see wind chills reach 40 to 50 degrees below zero, death can occur in minutes, Payne said, and frostbite can occur in as little as 10 minutes. That short time period could still be enough to lose toes or fingers to extreme frostbite, Payne said.
“It’s sobering,” he said.
Payne also offered advice for the cold: If your car breaks down, stay in it; only go out with a charged cell phone; only go outside if necessary; and do not drink alcohol before going outside, because it causes rapid heat loss.
Staying stocked up
Several local hardware stores reported selling out or nearly out of shovels, snowblowers and ice-melting products.
“The snow is certainly very good for business,” said Jerry Andersen, owner of Lee’s True Value Hardware, 1950 Taylor Ave. “The cold is a different story, because of course nobody wants to go out in it unless they have to.”
As the cold moved in, fewer and fewer people have been picking up supplies.
“Up until today, it’s been pretty nuts,” Dave Robbins, manager of Douglas Hardware and Rental, 2030 Douglas Ave., said Wednesday.
Robbins said the store sold completely out of used and new snowblowers until it got a shipment in Tuesday, and it sold through about 30 pallets of ice-melting substances.
At Kortendick Ace Hardware, 3806 Douglas Ave., manager Tim Schneider said furnace filters, heat packs and snow shovels have been selling the most. The store also ran out of snowblowers twice this winter, but got more in on Tuesday.
“I’ve been getting ready for this,” Schneider said. “We saw it coming. … We’ve been keeping up pretty well.”
In Burlington, not only have the winter essentials been selling well, but so has ice-fishing bait, said Jeff Koenen, co-owner of Reineman’s True Value, 417 Milwaukee Ave.
“If you can’t go out to work, you might as well go ice fishing,” Koenen joked.
Tow truck drivers brace for calls
Usually in January, Michelle Garcia, co-owner of Alligator Towing of Somers, says she expects 10 or so calls a day. This week, she’s been getting 25 to 30 calls for service per day.
Because frostbite can set in within as little as 10 minutes, tow truck drivers have been advised to minimize exposed skin, as it can sometimes take 20 minutes or more to hook a car up.
“They’re pretty geared up,” Garcia said.
Richard Garcia, Michelle’s husband and co-owner of Alligator, said the high frequency of calls has created a small challenge in organizing his fleet of trucks and drivers.
“We might have somebody out there who is 25 years old and somebody who is 70 years old, (and) we try to get the older person first,” he said. “And most people understand that. You don’t want to leave anybody stuck in the cold.”
When someone calls for aid, they’re allowed to stay inside Alligator’s trucks while they wait. The three-ton vehicles are usually left running so the cabins will stay heated, and also so that the engines don’t shut down.
An employee at another towing company, Racine Recovery, 5336 Douglas Ave., said that calls had “calmed down quite a bit” by Wednesday afternoon after spiking in the morning. But the ultralow temperatures had been affecting hydraulics on the trucks.
Richard Garcia said Alligator Towing has had similar problems in the past but uses special hydraulic supplements, similar to transmission fluid, that keep the systems from shutting down in the cold.
“You’ve got be prepared every day. You never know what’s coming the next day,” he said. “Expect the worst, but hope for the best.”
Preventing car troubles
Brian Govednik, manager at Govednik Automotive, 3724 Durand Ave., said his crew had not seen very many customers with cold-related problems yet. But he does have some vehicles that will not start because the diesel in them has gelled.
Govednik predicted that calls about vehicles that won’t start will pick up on Friday, when schools and businesses reopen after being closed because of the cold on Wednesday and Thursday.
“A lot of people aren’t going anywhere today,” he said Wednesday.
Govednik recommends that locals, especially those who do not plan to do any driving Wednesday or Thursday, start their vehicles once in the morning and once at night, turning on the heat and letting them idle for 15 to 30 minutes to charge the batteries. This can help ensure the battery has sufficient charge to start the vehicle, as the power of car batteries diminishes in cold weather.
Kevin Farnsworth, office manager at Racine Auto Specialists, 2320 Douglas Ave., said the business has helped customers with a handful of problems related to the cold this week.
They include battery and alternator problems and stuck thermostats that cause vehicles either not to heat properly or to overheat.
Farnsworth recommended preventative maintenance to avoid cold-weather problems, including having fluids checked every other oil change and keeping up with regular oil changes. He said having the battery and charging system checked out when getting an oil change is especially important when weather is this cold.
No off day for plumbers
Wesley Rosenberg, owner of Building Waters, 2101 Lathrop Ave. — which does plumbing, heating and cooling work — told his employees to stay home Wednesday but to remain on call.
They all ended up working, dealing with frozen and broken pipes.
Rosenberg advised that residents open cabinet doors under sinks to allow heat to get to the pipes and to keep faucets running slightly, to help prevent freezing. He said to watch out for leaks after the cold snap when pipes that have frozen begin to thaw, which could potentially cause cracks.
Keith Haas, general manager of the Racine Water Utility, said his department wasn’t much busier than normal Wednesday.
“No big water main stories to tell,” he said in an email.
However, Haas said We Energies advised the Water Utility to run on generator power for a few hours Wednesday, thus reducing the cumulative amount of power We Energies needed to supply for a short span.
Too cold for bars
Several local bars were closed Wednesday because of the cold. They included:
- George’s Tavern, 1201 N. Main St.
- Joey’s Bar, 2054 Lathrop Ave.
- McAuliffe’s On The Square, 213 Sixth St.
- Buckets Pub, 2031 Lathrop Ave.
At least two area Culver’s restaurants were closed as well.
Other weather news
Charter Communications, which owns Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable), said it hasn’t had to stop service, despite the record lows.
“We are a 24/7 operation that is committed to the safety and well-being of our employees,” a spokeswoman said. “In extreme conditions like this, we will take advanced safety precautions while continuing to serve our customers’ essential needs.”
Several thousand people in Kenosha and Milwaukee counties reportedly lost power, which was entirely the result of the frigid cold, We Energies said.
Adam Malacara, the Racine Police Department’s public information officer, said there was not an excessive number of calls during the snow emergency, other than a few stalled cars. He credited residents heeding weather advisories and schools calling off classes for enhancing safety in the community.
Temperatures on Wednesday morning were reported at negative 25 degrees in Burlington, with a wind chill of negative 52, according to the National Weather Service. Because of a technical malfunction, the official temperature readings were not available in Racine on Wednesday.
Thursday morning is expected to have similar wind chill numbers before the weather starts to warm up in the afternoon, until reaching the mid-30s on Saturday, when there is a chance of freezing rain in the afternoon.
Journal Times reporters Jonathon Sadowski and Caitlin Sievers contributed to this report.