Old Man Winter is making an extended visit to south Louisiana this week as meteorologists predict overnight temperatures dipping into record-breaking teens and lower 20s and daytime highs struggling to climb past the mid-40s.
The extended cold snap, which got its chilly start Sunday night, has already increased the number of folks seeking refuge in homeless shelters. And the State Fire Marshal on Tuesday reported an uptick in the number of fire investigations it's handling — a majority of which officials said were caused by folks misusing home heating devices.
Plumbers are struggling to keep up with calls for service from residents with frozen water lines.
Kim Vince, president of the Baton Rouge residential and commercial plumbing company Louis Mechanical Contractors, said the uptick in service calls started Monday afternoon.
“I had to start dispatching four or five calls yesterday, then today, it’s been nonstop, as water (in frozen pipes) started thawing,” she said.
That’s when the damage to a home begins and when the plumbers can see the problem spots.
David Vilot, owner of Cajun Maintenance of Baton Rouge, said, “When you have a burst pipe is when it starts thawing out. Now we know where the frozen pipe is. Mostly, it’s in exterior walls.”
At midafternoon Tuesday, Vilot said he had just come from a job where the water was spouting from the ground a few feet from the house.
He said he expects “most people are going to start running their faucets. I bet the price of insulation has doubled, if I had to guess.”
“I think people will start being precautionary, but I expect it (frozen pipes) to be happening all week,” Vilot said.
Water in the ground is at a good 66 degrees, so getting that water into a home’s pipes warms the water already there that has lost temperature, said Fred Robillard, owner of Reliable Plumbing in Baton Rouge.
He, too, was busy Tuesday with commercial and residential repairs. Robillard said he had received about 50 calls by Tuesday afternoon. In homes, the leaks were coming mostly from broken pipes in attics and exterior walls, he said.
The National Weather Service issued overnight hard freeze warnings for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Phil Grigsby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, even speculated a chance of light snow along the Louisiana coastline early Wednesday morning.
"It'll probably be a dusting at most. Everything should melt pretty fast," he said.
Grigsby doesn't expect temperatures to climb past 40 degrees Wednesday afternoon, with wind chills in the morning hovering around the low to middle teens.
Things are expected to warm up slightly Thursday with daytime highs around the mid-40s, but temperatures will dip into 20s again overnight, likely resulting in another hard freeze warning, he said.
Grigsby doesn't expect another overnight freeze Friday heading into the weekend as temperatures start to slowly climb back to normal levels for the region.
"Saturday is going to be a lot warmer with highs in the low to mid 50s," he said. "That's well below average. But Sunday, we should be back to normal with things in the mid 60s."
The forecast has State Fire Marshal Butch Browning stressing the importance of fire safety as folks struggle to stay warm inside their homes through the use of electrical space heaters.
"We're just concerned about the next two days or so of cold temperatures," Browning said Tuesday. "We responded to seven requests for fire investigations statewide within a 12-hour period. A majority of those fires are attributed to people trying to stay warm."
Browning said electrical space heaters should be used only when folks can attend to them, and stresses the importance of keeping them at least 3-4 feet from anything flammable. Browning discouraged leaving the portable heaters plugged in and running while sleeping and discouraged using stoves and ovens as heating sources inside homes.
"Stoves and ovens are not designed to be on for hours all night," he said.
Organizations serving homeless people across the eight-parish Acadiana region saw a significant increase in those seeking shelter, said Leigh Rachal, executive director of ARCH, a coalition of about two dozen organizations. The seven shelters affiliated with ARCH typically serve about 220 people per night combined, but that number has increased by an additional 50 or 60, Rachal said, adding that this tally is “very approximate.”
“We are still in the midst of the situation,” Rachal said.
Rachal said most shelters plan to operate on freeze plans through Friday. That usually means relaxed identification and sobriety requirements, but each organization adheres to its own plan, she said.
The extra demand for services was felt as well at Catholic Services of Acadiana’s emergency shelter for men in downtown Lafayette, where about 30 people typically spend the night. That number surged to 72 on Monday night, spokesman Ben Broussard said. Catholic Services is also providing transportation from the downtown Lafayette shelter at 401 St. John St. to its shelter for women and children in Opelousas. The organization asks those needing services to arrive by 6 p.m., Broussard said.
“We will move out chairs, we will move out tables and make additional emergency cots available,” Broussard said, noting that freeze operations cost the organization an additional several thousand dollars per night.
Entergy warned its customers via Twitter on Tuesday that the extreme cold weather could take crews a little longer to restore power for any outages over the next few days.
“During cold weather extremes, we use a methodical and calculated process to bring customers back online after an outage,” Dennis Dawsey, Entergy’s vice president of customer service in Louisiana, tweeted. “Rather than simply energizing an entire power line at once, we must bring customers back online one section at a time to avoid damage to our distribution system and make the situation worse. This takes more time to restore power to affected customers than if we were able to restore the entire line at once.”
Acadiana Advocate reporter Ben Myers contributed to this report.