Arctic air freezes Lee’s Summit

rpulley@lsjournal.com tporter@lsjournal.comJanuary 8, 2014 

Lee’s Summit and much of the nation is coming out of a deep-freeze that blasted south from the Arctic.

Locally, it resulted in a few cases of frostbite and frozen pipes. In states farther north, media reported at least 15 deaths related to bitter cold and heavy snow.

The National Weather Service was reporting the Midwest this week saw the lowest temperatures in 20 years.

The forecast for the rest of the week is a warming trend, according to the weather service, with highs in the 40s and rain by Friday.

A polar vortex, air that normally circulates in the northernmost regions around the pole, on Sunday Jan. 5 blew into the area. It was pushed by an unusual, powerful high-pressure system coming out of the east Pacific Ocean and reaching to the North Pole. It shoved a mass of super-frigid air over the United States.

Lee’s Summit temperatures were at 16 degrees early Jan. 5 and kept falling all day and night to -8 before sunup Jan. 6. With the bitter cold came 3 to 4 inches of snow and lots of wind. The high Monday was 3 degrees and life-threatening wind chills between -15° and -24° continued through Jan. 7.

“It's just a dangerous cold,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Butch Dye.

Frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly, but Lee’s Summit area hospitals reported treating only a few cases of frostbite.

The Lee’s Summit R-7 School District canceled its first day of school after the winter break, Jan. 6, and it is the first snow day the district will be making up. The last day of school now is May 20, said Janice Phelan, director of communications.

Lee’s Summit fire and police officials said that despite a few accidents here and there, no major incidents have occurred in Lee’s Summit because of the temperatures and road conditions.

Between Jan. 5-7, the police department responded to nine motor vehicle crashes (one with injuries; eight non-injury) and 30 stranded motorists, said spokesman Sgt. Chris Depue.

Depue attributed the low accident numbers to two things.

“The majority of the snow came on Sunday when traffic is normally light already,” he said. “Then, on Monday, school was canceled which removed a large number of drivers from the roads.”

The cold caused both departments to reiterate the importance of preventive safety measures not only to citizens, but to their on-duty personnel as well.

“Our officers are accustomed to working in weather extremes, from the scorching sun and humidity of summer to the wind chills of winter,” Depue said. “We see it all in Missouri. Specifically, for this recent blast of cold air, we reminded all of our supervisors that rotation of officers would be critical and that no officer should remain exposed on a call for more than 20 minutes without relief. We also remind officers to request rotation on long calls for service and to also watch out for dehydration which can be a real issue in this dry air.”

Jim Eden, assistant fire chief, said the fire department constantly reminds personnel to take caution.

“Basically, we tell them what we tell everyone else: dress in layers and try limit outdoor activity as much as possible,” Eden said. “Typically, on a significant incident, we will provide vehicles for them to warm in and limit their work cycles. If we have to bring in extra crews to relieve them then we would do that so that they can get warmed back up.” The fire department’s trucks are also prepped for safety measures.

“We have to worry about our trucks since they carry water,” Eden said. “We try to keep them inside as much as possible. We have to keep the water circulating in the pumps so that they don’t freeze up. Likewise, our biggest concerns are the people we take care of; people that are involved in falls or motor vehicle accidents and trying to get them out of the weather as quick as possible.”

Aside from pushing wind chill indexes into the red zone, the wind also made it more difficult for city crews to clear streets of snow. The city was still plowing snow until about 7 p.m. Jan. 6 and on Jan. 7 finished spreading salt on residential streets.

“It’s taken us longer than normal, not so much because of cold, but because of wind,” said Bob Hartnett, deputy director of Public Works. “We had to keep plowing over and over again because it kept blowing back onto the street.”

In Lee’s Summit, plows clear the main streets first, then move on to neighborhoods, and the trucks had to re-plow thoroughfares three and four times, he said.

Harnett said that with temperatures below 15 degrees, salt is ineffective, especially on side streets with low volumes of traffic.

The Missouri Department of Transportation also warned motorists to watch for slick spots where refreezing occurred and blowing snow blanketed already-plowed roadways.

Lee’s Summit Water Utilities got calls from dozens of customers reporting they didn’t have water in their homes or businesses. The primary cause was frozen pipes inside homes, said Miranda Landstra, water utilities community relations specialist.

Dispatchers for local plumbing companies said they also had many calls for frozen pipes early in the week, so many that plumbers couldn’t respond to some calls until the next day.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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