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Dispatches from Ice Station Madison: How we’re dealing with the arctic weather

January 30, 2019 GMT

Lots of things are closed today -- most government offices, schools, shopping malls, restaurants -- due to the life-threatening cold. Even the Postal Service has suspended delivery in Wisconsin as well as parts or all of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, as well as Wisconsin.

But some other people are working, even playing, in this arctic weather. If you must go out, dress in layers and don’t leave any skin exposed.

“You’re talking about frostbite and hypothermia issues very quickly, like in a matter of minutes, maybe seconds,” said Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the Weather Prediction Center.

Throughout the day, reporters and photographers at the Wisconsin State Journal will be providing updates from Ice Station Madison. Follow their dispatches below.

***

Most flights coming in and out of Dane County Regional Airport are operating like normal.

“We’re not seeing a major impact to all of our schedule,” airport spokesman Brent Kyzer-McHenry said.

Flights to Chicago were canceled, but others are arriving and departing on time or a bit delayed, according to the airport’s flight tracker.

***

Ian’s Pizza closed its Frances Street location Wednesday, but kept its State Street location open for dine-in and deliveries. Restaurant staff reached out to staff and delivery drivers before making the decision to remain open Wednesday.

“In-store has been reasonably slow,” manager Nick Stratman said of Wednesday’s customers. “Delivery is keeping us busy. The main thing is to deliver in a fashion to keep the car running as much as possible.”

Delivery drivers are wearing extra layers, thick coats and gloves. They’re equipped with emergency car battery jumpers, though Stratman said none of the drivers have had to use them yet.

***

Maybe you got out of jury duty this week when Dane County closed the courthouse on Monday because of snow, and then again on Wednesday and Thursday because of the intense cold.

But not if you were a juror in a federal case. This week, a jury in U.S. District Court has been hearing a criminal trial, and on Wednesday, a grand jury convened to consider criminal indictments sought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Peter Oppeneer, clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, said a jury of 12 was at work Wednesday hearing the criminal trial and up to 23 people were on the grand jury, which requires a quorum of at least 16.

The grand jury, which meets once or twice a month. is comprised of people from all over the Western District, which sprawls all the way to Superior in northern Wisconsin. People on it get a per diem for mileage and a hotel room, Oppeneer said.

“Everyone made it okay,” he said. “There was some confusion on Monday when Dane County closed, because jurors don’t make the distinction” between state and federal courts. Three people didn’t make it Monday to jury selection, “but we were able to rustle them up.”

***

Dogs will often let their owners know if it’s too cold for them outside, but they can also be “stoic” and set aside the danger to themselves to press on with walks their owners are intent on taking, an emergency veterinarian says.

“You have to remember they go out without shoes on,” said Julia Bates of Madison Veterinary Specialists. “Most of our pets, they aren’t acclimated to this (bitterly cold weather).”

Dogs and cats can get frostbite, she said, typically on their feet or on the tips of their ears where the blood vessels are small. Older and thinner animals and ones without heavy coats are also more susceptible. Dog jackets and foot coverings can help cut down on the risk, assuming your pet will wear them.

One sign your dog shouldn’t be outside? It tries to keep its feet off the ground, Bates said.

“If you can’t stand to be outside for a few minutes, then your dog probably can’t either,” she said. “If it’s cold enough for the bars to close, it’s probably too cold for your pet to be outside.”

She also warned dog owners to avoid paved areas covered with salt or other ice-melting chemicals because they can burn animals’ paws.

***

The Madison Water Utility has so far reported nine water main breaks due to the cold -- five Tuesday and four so far today -- although spokeswoman Amy Barrilleaux said “the impact has been relatively small.”

“Crews were able to isolate all of the breaks for repairs,” she said. “That means that just a handful of homes were out of water during repairs for each break.”

As of 1 p.m., crews were working in the 1400 block of Wyldewood Drive on the city’s North Side and in the 5600 block of Bryn Trem Road on the Southeast Side.

Barrilleaux said that with the ground frozen to a depth of about 4 feet, it’s been taking a long time to reach the breaks.

***

Free parking and free bus rides will continue in Madison on Thursday.

The Madison Police Department’s parking enforcement is suspending the monitoring of on-street parking meters and pay stations until noon Thursday. Motorists will be able to park their cars at meters without monitoring and plugging the meters.

Madison Metro will also continue to provide free bus rides, as well as using buses to take patrons of shelters to their desired overnight homes.

The weather is supposed to warm this weekend, so we could see some street flooding because of frozen storm drains. The city is asking residents to help clear drains if city crews haven’t been able to get to all drains, so there’s no flooding and subsequent icing in the streets.

***

Ride-hailing company Lyft is offering free rides to people seeking transport to warming centers in Madison through Friday.

Lyft will give riders two free trips up to a $25 value each to warming centers, according to a post on the company’s website.

The offer is part of a partnership with the United Way and Wisconsin 211.

To redeem the free rides, users must use the Lyft app and promotional code WIJAYDEN19. A list of applicable warming centers can be found at go.madison.com/211warming.

That promotional code is also available in Milwaukee. Lyft is also offering the free rides in Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis and St. Paul.

***

Wisconsin Public Radio host and producer Stephanie Elkins started her program Wednesday by welcoming listeners to “Morning Classics” on this “horrendously frigid Wednesday, January 30th in Wisconsin.”

Elkins said she “waddled in like the Michelin Tire Man, with goggles and two balaclavas and so many layers I could hardly move.”

WPR put up some of the morning hosts and producers at the Fluno Center, so they would only have a 5-minute walk in to the station and “didn’t have to worry about dead batteries and tires like blocks of ice,” Elkins said.

Four stuff members stayed at Fluno -- “just enough to get things on the air this morning,” Elkins said.

No taxpayer funds were used for the rooms, and the Fluno Center provided a discount for the station, she said.

***

Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove took a day off from burials Wednesday, said Carla Vigue, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

But the weather won’t change the cemetery’s commitment to providing dignified burials for every veteran, she said.

“We do not have any burials planned for today as families saw the forecast,” Vigue said. “However, we have five burials planned for tomorrow. Our dedicated ground crew is working today to thaw the ground in preparation for tomorrow’s ceremonies.”

***

Most Madison restaurants were closed, but the McDonald’s restaurants on Regent Street and East Washington Avenue were open regular hours Tuesday and Wednesday.

McDonalds never closes, “ever,” said Omar Sanchez, who manages the Regent Street location.

A delivery from Whitewater of hamburger patties, french fries, pancakes, eggs, milk, “everything,” got delayed Monday by 24 hours because of the cold, Sanchez said.

Business was steady at the McDonald’s on East Washington Avenue, reported shift manager Martha Flores. “No matter the weather, we still have to open,” she said.

Owners of the 19 Food Fight restaurants in the Madison area spoke to managers and employees before making the decision to stay open Wednesday at four locations: Cento, Johnny Delmonico’s, Fresco and Bassett Street Brunch Club. All four have limited hours Wednesday.

“We closed 15 restaurants today and most closed early yesterday,” the group’s chief creative officer, Caitlin Suemnicht, said Wednesday. “Some employees were concerned about getting to work, some wanted to work, and after calling customers to confirm reservations, we found out that many people did still want to go out to dinner tonight.”

Other businesses, such as grocery stores, remained open, and some of the toughest shifts were for those responsible for bringing the shopping carts in from the parking lot.

That was among the responsibilities for Demonte Griffin, 15, and Tommy Hodges, 20, at the Pick ’n Save along Aberg Avenue on Madison’s North Side.

“Just make sure that my whole body’s covered so I don’t have any exposed skin,” was Griffin’s approach to temperatures well below zero.

Hodges, who’s been working at the store for nearly three years, said he’s gotten frostbite from working outside there in the past.

He went to the doctor and “they told me it will heal up on its own,” he said.

Business was slow as of midday, so both were able to keep warm inside. Hodges said he typically only spends about 15 minutes at a time collecting carts in weather like today’s.

Griffin admitted he thought about calling in sick.

“It’s just easier to come in because you’re basically getting paid to do nothing,” he said. “There’s nobody coming.”

***

The State Patrol didn’t have any major crashes to report Wednesday morning, but there were several disabled vehicles along major highways.

Officials are warning drivers to watch for black ice on pavement, since even a small amount of snow blowing onto roads can melt when vehicle exhaust or sunlight heats surfaces just enough, before the winds refreeze the moisture.

“Motorists should be especially cautious at traditional black ice trouble spots, such as underpasses, within the shade of trees, at intersections and on interchange ramps,” the State Patrol said.

***

Madison firefighters had to brave the bitter cold early in the morning to fight a house fire called in around 3 a.m. in the 4800 block of Buckeye Road.

The resident of the single-family home was able to get out okay, along with two cats.

The home was heavily damaged, but the cause of the fire was not known. No injuries were reported.

***

All branches of the Madison Public Library, often a refuge for those with nowhere else to go during bad weather, will be closed Wednesday and Thursday. Regular hours should resume on Friday.

The Dane County YMCA also announced its programs are canceled and its facilities closed through Wednesday.

***

Many entertainment venues also closed Wednesday, including the Overture Center for the Arts, Barrymore Theatre and numerous movie theaters.

However, Marcus Theatres -- including the Marcus Point at 7825 Big Sky Drive in Madison and the Palace Cinemas at 2830 Hoepker Road in Sun Prairie – announced it would offer free hot chocolate to all moviegoers through Friday. The movie theater chain is also offering an “Enchanted Tales Film Series” through Thursday for $5, and $6 admission (plus free popcorn) on Thursday for students and faculty, according to a press release.

Both the AMC Madison 6 movie theater at 430 N. Midvale Blvd. and Market Square Theatre, 6604 Odana Road, are closed due to the weather, according to the theaters’ websites.

New Visions Theatre in Fitchburg also closed Wednesday, with plans to resume regular business hours on Thursday.

The Overture Center is closed through noon on Thursday. A Wednesday performance of the touring children’s show “PAW Patrol Live!” was canceled and will be rescheduled to Aug. 13-14. Ticketholders for “PAW Patrol Live!” will be contacted and will have the option of rescheduling for August or receiving a refund the week of Feb. 4 if their tickets were purchased through the Overture Center, according to a press release.

Audience members with tickets to the Wednesday performance of Forward Theater Company’s “Heisenberg” should call the Overture box office at 608-258-4141 to reschedule or receive a refund. “Heisenberg” runs through Feb. 3.

Flix Brewhouse cinema at East Towne Mall has also suspended ticket sales for Wednesday on its website.

***

Most medical clinics in the Madison area are closed Wednesday, including the majority of those at UW Health, SSM Health Dean Medical Group and Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin.

Clinics at UnityPoint Health-Meriter are open, however, though some programs are closed or are closing early, said spokeswoman Leah Huibregtse.

Hospital officials said they’ve seen some cases of frostbite and exposure.

***

Dane County Emergency Management has been coordinating with various agencies since Thursday to prepare for the cold snap, spokesman J. McLellan said. On Tuesday morning, much of the department’s work involved working with local utilities to monitor the power outages that affected thousands of area residents.

The department was also in contact with emergency managers in Fitchburg and other communities to see if additional warming shelters were needed.

“The issue is that the extent of this cold magnifies the consequences of these outages very quickly,” McLellan said.

The office has also been coordinating services with municipal emergency managers, county departments, first-responder associations and homeless services providers to identify needs and assign services, McLellan said.

“We’re executing what we’ve built up and planned for,” McLellan said.

***

Almost 6,000 Alliant Energy customers in western and southeastern Wisconsin were without power for about one and a half hours Wednesday morning.

Spokeswoman Annemarie Newman said the outages were weather-related.

“Nothing is immune from extreme cold,” she said.

Newman said Alliant plants were running “all-out” to meet increased demand for electricity. Natural gas demand was also heavy.

“Usage is up everywhere,” Newman said. “We’re meeting it and we aren’t seeing any (problems).”

Madison Gas & Electric linemen were working in Fitchburg to restore service for about 750 customers affected by a downed line that was likely caused by weather.

About 400 customers in McFarland lost power for several hours overnight after a car struck a pole, said MGE spokesman Steve Schultz.

Schultz said gas and electric crews are working staggered shifts this week --instead of the normal on-call duty -- to provide 24-hour emergency response during the extreme cold.

But the utility put routine outdoor work on hold.

“It’s just too cold,” Schultz said.