Deep freeze

Published 11:12 am Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Numerous problems accompany cold snap

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Temperatures are back to what is basically normal for this time of year, but a week ago, Isle of Wight and Surry county residents were bracing for what was being called a ‘bomb cyclone.’

In this case, the ‘bomb cyclone’ — a new term for most people — was a unique set of circumstances that came with a rapidly falling atmospheric pressure that, coupled with the earth’s rotation, caused a cyclone effect — sort of a ramped up Northeaster meets the dead of winter with a blast of arctic air on top.

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Hampton Roads was also under a blizzard warning — an unusual event in this area.{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

And to add insult to the many inches of snow, the prolonged cold temperatures — below freezing for days —wreaked havoc with water pipes, drain pipes, heating systems, transportation, pets, livestock and more.

The last time Isle of Wight and Surry counties had seen such prolonged cold was January 1977, when similar temperatures froze everything from pipes to the James River. The river freeze-up that year shut down ferry traffic for more than a week.

Approaching storm

The scramble to prepare for the ‘bomb cyclone’ began in earnest Wednesday, Jan. 3 as residents flocked to grocery and hardware stores to stock up on supplies for the impending storm, which arrived that night.

Tractor Supply Co. Manager Josh Turner said that anything winter-related was flying off the shelves Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 3.

The lines at True Value on South Church Street seemed just as long, some buying flashlights, some shovels and salt.

One Suffolk resident at the store was getting a shovel and picking up some bird seed that he needed regardless of the upcoming “bomb cyclone.”

“My wife and I sat down and thought about everything we have in the house,” he said of preparing. “We’re in good shape.”

The same scene was played out at Food Lion in Smithfield, where shoppers stood in lines, some ten deep, to stock up on a wide variety of items — from bags of potato chips to water and beer. Noticeably empty was the shelf that once offered fire logs.

Store manager Tommy Nester said he planned to receive multiple shipments to keep the shelves stocked, but as of Friday at noon, the milk and egg shelves were still empty.

Over at the Isle of Wight County Animal Shelter, Kennel Attendant Christina Crowder said staff put down tarps to leave a snow-free zone for the dogs to relieve themselves, as well as making sure the animals had blankets and fresh water.

Someone was scheduled to come to the shelter each day to make sure the animals were cared for, she said.

Farmer Dee Dee Darden said feeding the cows during this cold spell hasn’t been difficult, but keeping the watering holes free of ice has been.

“We’ve cracked the ice on the edges and that helps for a little while. We are also afraid that they are going to walk on ice and fall in,” said Darden.

Even before the storm hit, plumber Jim Holloman with Isle of Wight Plumbing Service said he was so busy with frozen and burst water pipes that he could barely keep up.

Holloman predicted it would be worse Monday when temperatures, predicted to rise above freezing for the first time in days, would allow frozen pipes to thaw and possibly burst.  

The storm

The storm itself caused power to be knocked out for more than 760 customers in Isle of Wight and about 280 in Surry County on Thursday, according to Dominion Power.

By the end of the day, that number had dropped to nine in Isle of Wight and two in Surry. On Friday, however, 2,185 customers were without power in the Rushmere area caused by a downed tree.

For most residents, the storm and its aftermath meant trying to keep the pipes from freezing at home, scraping and shoveling a lot of snow and trying to stay warm as temperatures and wind chills dropped to near zero in some cases.

Luke Holloman with Isle of Wight Plumbing Service said the power outage, coupled with residents on a well, led to some pretty dramatic situations.

Well pumps are run on electricity and with the power out, residents could not trickle the water, leading to burst pipes, Holloman said.

“We’ve got people with ceilings falling down,” Holloman said.

The most notable incident for the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department happened before the storm actually arrived, said Chief Jerry Hackney.

The sprinkler in Harvest Fellowship Baptist Church broke, causing gallons of water to flow into the church, he said, adding that the fire department helped the church remove the water.

Lt. James Pope with the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office said that as of Friday evening most of the 45 calls were for crashes or vehicles in the snow.

“Hopefully it remains that way,” he said.

The town of Smithfield closed Windsor Castle Park because of the cold and snowy conditions, but that didn’t keep some people out, as footprints in the snow revealed the park remained popular despite the weather.  

Two hunters went missing overnight Jan. 3 after they attempted to cross the James River from the Jamestown Yacht basin to a duck blind off the shore of Grays Creek in Surry County, said Paige Pearson, spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The storm arrived Wednesday night with high winds and snow.

While the 15-foot john boat was found overturned in the water, the search continued Monday for the two men, who were in their 20s, Pearson said, adding that several agencies were involved including the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The Virginia State Police divers also assisted, according to VSP spokesperson Corinne Geller.

Deep freeze

The snow and accompanying bitterly cold temperatures also sparked a few odd calls.

One call on Thursday was from someone complaining about a man pulling kids on a sled behind his truck and “having fun,” according to the dispatcher.

There was a report of a chicken coop on fire Friday, sparking a response by first responders. 

The Smithfield Police responded to a call about a car bypassing the barricade on North Mason Street — one of the town’s few hills used for sledding.

The caller was concerned about the sledders’ safety, said Deputy Chief Matthew Rogers.

The hill remained closed to vehicular traffic throughout the weekend and sledders took full advantage of it.

The sledding hill behind Cedar Street was busy Thursday, but by Sunday the hill was devoid of snow in many places as an enthusiastic throng of sledders wore it away.

School was cancelled Thursday and Friday, as well as Monday and Tuesday, as back roads remained ice and snow covered.

And while some cursed the snow and cold, others reveled in it.

“Snow to dogs is what catnip is to cats … it makes them crazy,” said Linda Lytton of her black lab, Zoey, who apparently finds the cold and snow invigorating.

Sheila Gwaltney said her horse Tess enjoyed rolling around in the snow, making an equine version of a snow angel.

Betsy Egan also loves the snow and finds shoveling “exhilarating on beautiful sunny days,” she said, adding that she did take a fall on some ice covered with snow.

Lytton said being stuck at home has led her to tackle cleaning closets and other projects she normally wouldn’t do.

“Feeling good about the results,” she said.

Others were on the phone with their heating repair professional or ordering another delivery of heating oil as some residents reported the temperature indoors dropping to the 40s as their heating systems tried to keep up.

“It’s extreme and difficult to keep up,” said Clarence Hucks, manager with Tidewater Petroleum in Windsor.

Hucks said his drivers have worked the past 14 days without a break trying to fill orders.

And there are some people you have to get to, such as senior citizens, said Hucks.

Hucks said he had a call from a woman in her 80s who had run out of heating oil.

“You could hear her shivering on the phone,” he said, adding that heating system breakdowns are also common in this sort of weather because they’re running constantly.

“I’ve never seen it this busy before,” Hucks said.

Smithfield High School also suffered a burst water pipe, said Isle of Wight County schools spokesperson Lynn Briggs. The pipe was on an exterior wall, but is not expected to cause any issues when school resumes, she said.

Dominion Energy spokesperson Jan Bennett said the Surry Power Station has implemented special procedures to deal with the extreme cold.

“The biggest concern is that components would freeze and not be able to perform their design function. To prevent that, our people have set up heaters and increased monitoring equipment to catch any problems early,” said Bennett, adding that there are nuclear plants much further north so they have access to what those operators have learned in dealing with the cold.

Meanwhile, the demand for electricity goes up drastically in this weather and both Surry units have been running at full capacity to keep up, said Bennett.

Staff writer Ryan Kushner contributed to this report.  {/mprestriction}