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No Respite From Cold: Water Mains Burst, Governor Extends Cold Weather Protocol

The 113-year-old water main burst, and burst spectacularly, sending water 15 feet skyward and coating surrounding cars in a slick that soon turned to ice in Tuesday morning’s 10 degree cold.

For the Metropolitan District, the agency tasked with servicing Hartford’s sewage and water systems, the cracked water main on Hicks Street in downtown Hartford was the fourth before lunchtime.

“It’s happening all over,” said one worker, carrying a spare pair of boots in his left hand. “It doesn’t even matter, the age of the pipes. It’s like nine degrees out. Between the frost and the thawing-out, it busts up the pipes.”

The recent cold spell — which shows no signs of relenting in the coming days — has created serious problems for more than Hartford’s plumbing. Leaders of the city’s homeless shelters, tasked with keeping the city’s most vulnerable residents warm, are fearing the tail end of this week. The National Weather Service is predicting snow will fall Wednesday night and throughout the day Thursday, with temperatures plunging into the negatives Friday and Saturday.

Though Saturday’s air temperatures will likely be colder than Friday’s, Friday will feel colder than Saturday with icy winds whipping across the greater Hartford area, said Benjamin Sipprell, a meteorologist at the weather service’s Taunton office. “Winds will get pretty blustery, about 30 to 35 miles per hour, and that’s going to knock wind chills down to 15 to 20 below,” Sipprell said.

Sipprell predicts three to six inches of snow will fall on the Hartford area Wednesday night and Thursday.

In anticipation of such brutal cold, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced Tuesday he was extending a statewide protocol to help state agencies and local service providers coordinate efforts to get the homeless a warm place to stay.

“As we continue through this extended period of bitter cold temperatures, we must take precautions and ensure that services are available to protect the most vulnerable populations,” Malloy said. He urged anyone seeking a warm bed to dial 211, the state’s information hotline, which can connect people with shelters and warming centers.

In downtown Hartford, the geyser that erupted above Hicks Street quickly dwindled to a muddy gurgle. The Metropolitan District, known as MDC, would battle one more burst main that day, this one on Cambridge Drive in East Hartford. The agency, which services Hartford and seven surrounding towns, is tasked with managing an assemblage of water lines, all of varying ages and compositions. Some of the pipes date back to the 1890s; some of them were installed much more recently. The cold, however, does not seem to discriminate based on age.

“We’re seeing breaks in pipes from the 60s and 70s just as we’re seeing breaks in pipes from 1903,” said Kerry Martin, an MDC spokeswoman. The busted main beneath Hicks Street dated to 1905, but earlier Tuesday morning, a pipe installed in 1948 burst in West Hartford, affecting 31 properties and Webster Hill Elementary School.

The spate of water main breaks in recent days was caused by ground heaves, Martin said, which occur when the soil surrounding a main freezes and thaws, twisting — and in some cases cracking — the pipes.

“It freezes, thaws and heaves, freezes and heaves,” Martin said. “And that’s what’s really causing these breaks.”

Given the bitter cold, the frequency of the breaks — five on Tuesday — isn’t exactly surprising, Martin said. “It’s unusual for January,” she said. “But for the weather, it’s not unusually high. We would expect this with this kind of weather.”

The cold has also hampered efforts to repair the breaks, Martin said. Before MDC begins repairs, it must dial the “Call Before You Dig” hotline, which has been backed up with weather-related outages, cracked plumbing and ground heaves. Further slowing down the repairs are cold weather protocols that mandate regular breaks for MDC workers to warm up.

“With all these things going on, we’re just asking people for a little more patience than they might have had in more temperate weather,” Martin said.

In East Hartford, Tyeisha Saffold has helped the homeless find a bed for the past 16 years, but this winter is the worst she’s seen.

“I’ve seen some cold weather, but this is cold,” said Saffold, program manager for East Hartford Community Shelter. “There’s a lot more people putting down their pride and saying, ‘OK, I need help.’”

Saffold’s 40-bed shelter has been at capacity since mid-November. She’s seen people who would normally ride out the winter in makeshift living conditions — cars, tents, garages — bow to the bitter cold and inquire about a shelter bed. But in Saffold’s shelter, like many in the Hartford area, there are more people seeking help than beds.

“Sometimes, when it comes to not having your own place to stay, you might be OK with sleeping in your car or in a friend’s basement,” she said. “But not in this weather. In this weather, people — and especially parents with kids — are saying they need help.”

When someone new calls in inquiring about a bed, Saffold tells them that while they can’t stay overnight at the shelter, they can at least come in and spend a few hours in the day room.

“It’s better than being outdoors,” she said.

Saffold directs them to the William Ware Recreational Center on Windsor Street, where the city has set up an emergency warming shelter and where Paul Easton, 78, spent Monday night. For the past year and a half, Easton, a Brooklyn native, has lived out of a White Dodge Ram van he purchased from a friend after being evicted from his Brooklyn apartment. He spent a week in a Hartford shelter last year, when the van was towed from a Walmart parking lot during a snowstorm and Easton spent a week scraping together the $150, plus a $28-a-day storage fee, to pay the towing company.

The van had a bed and some cabinets. With time, it felt kind of like home.

“I didn’t feel homeless. I didn’t feel it was a great hardship,” Easton said. “But in this cold, I couldn’t sleep.”

On Christmas, Easton decided it was too cold to go on living like that. He went into one of the city’s overnight warming centers and was handed a plastic chair. He asked if he could curl up on the ground. He was told no. He didn’t sleep at all that night, he said, and the following day he borrowed $60 from a friend to stay in a motel. On New Year’s Eve, he ran out of money and people to borrow it from.

Easton spent Monday night in the warming center. This time, though, he fell asleep. The chairs weren’t any more comfortable, he said. “I think it was just I didn’t sleep the night before.”

Easton’s Social Security check comes in at midnight Wednesday. He’ll spend one more night in the Windsor Street warming center.

“It’s not unpleasant,” he said. But “it’s not a place where anybody wants to be if they don’t have to.”

The cold claimed one life Tuesday in Hartford — that of a young pit bull, chained to a fence and found frozen solid inside a doghouse. When police found the dog outside a home on Adams Street Monday night, its ribs and pelvic bones showed through the skin, and its tongue had signs of hypothermia burns. The dog’s owner, who has been incarcerated for the last six months on narcotics charges, according to Deputy Chief Brian Foley, has been charged with animal cruelty.

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