New Englanders Rely On Ingenuity, Grit To Overcome Freezing Temperatures

It was cold in New England this week, cold enough to crack skin, cold enough to burst water mains and cold enough for municipalities to set up emergency warming centers in bus terminals and libraries. But it wasn’t cold enough for an unlucky few to escape working outdoors, so across Connecticut, letter carriers, utility workers, parking lot attendants and car-washers and others continued to do their jobs in merciless temperatures.

Jonathan Mendez was corralling stray shopping carts in the parking lot of a Hartford Stop and Shop Friday morning, shivering in a thin hoodie with a store T-shirt layered on top. Mendez, who normally works in the store’s produce section, wasn’t happy about being outdoors Friday morning. A few employees called out sick, he said, and he was put on cart duty.

“I was pretty upset, not going to lie,” he said. “I complained about it, because I didn’t come ready to work outside. I don’t even have a jacket on.”

Clumps of dirty, frozen snow ringed the store’s parking lot. Shoppers hustled to load their cars with groceries, some of them abandoning their carts once they finished. More work for Mendez.

“If you don’t got on a few layers of clothing, you’re not going to survive out here pushing these carts,” he grumbled, before returning to work in the chilly Friday temperatures.

The National Weather Service predicts that temperatures in the Hartford region will rise slightly Saturday, with a chance of one to two inches of snow, before plunging back into the single digits on New Year’s Eve. Sunday and Monday promise to be bright and sharp, with temperatures not exceeding the low teens.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom ...” begins the USPS motto, and James Williams, a Hartford posal worker who was hired this summer, got his first taste of the agency’s unconditional commitment to delivering the mail this week when temperatures plummeted into the single digits.

“This is a quick and drastic transition for me, and I just got to deal with it,” he said. “But I’m all about overcoming obstacles. I’m new, so I want to get as much challenges and overcome them as quick as possible.”

Williams has taken to armoring himself with sunglasses, a scarf wrapped round his head and a hoodie pulled on top, and hand-warmers — two in each glove. The worst, he said, is having to traipse across snow-covered lawns; the snow seeps into his boots, making a damp, hellish swamp of his socks. He now sandwiches his toes between two warming pads, and before he leaves home in the morning, he toasts his gloves on top of his heater.

“I get really prepared, man, because I know what I’m facing when I step out that door,” Williams said.

Friday was warmer than Thursday, when temperatures hovered in the low teens and winds lacerated anyone outdoors. “It was tough for me yesterday,” Williams said. “But I thought if I got through yesterday, I could get through anything.”

In West Hartford, another postal worker, Louis Priest, was making his rounds on Boulevard. Priest, too, thought Friday was slightly less worse than Thursday, though he wasn’t taking off any layers. As long as he keeps moving, he said, the cold isn’t too bad.

“Being cold, you can put layers on, extra socks, extra jackets, gloves. But it’s the wind, I think, that’s the worst,” he said. “It’s the wind that kills you.”

In Hartford, Tony Baez has been working at the Mr. Sparkle Car Wash at Washington and Lincoln streets for six years. He’s been hot and he’s been cold. But people want the salt and other winter grime off their cars, and they want someone else to do it for them. The Hartford resident is there to do it.

“It’s cold,” Baez said as a broad smile crossed his face. “It’s hard, but we have families, we have bills. We don’t think about the cold. We think about the money. Survival.”

Baez said that dressing in layers helps keep warm, but when your job entails getting wet all through the day, it’s tough. On Friday, he said he was wearing three pairs of socks, long johns and sweat pants under his regular pants.

“It doesn’t help because we’re around water,” he said. “Basically, we do the cars then run to the heater.”

Baez said he works at the car wash and hopes his kids pay attention in school, read and do better. “So I come to work every day, rain, sleet or snow,” he said.

Over on Ward Street, Bob Kelley of Glastonbury was in a bucket truck making cable repairs. He works for Frontier and, no matter what, he knows he’s going to be working outside.

“I’ve been doing it for 32 years,” he said. “My body kind of adapted to it.”

He wears layers and tries to cover any exposed skin. He also hopes for little or no wind.

“You can handle the cold,” he said. “The wind will go right through your clothes.”

One more thing, he said: “I’m moving south as soon as I retire.”

With ski season in full swing, Chris Sullivan, head of mountain operations at Ski Sundown in New Hartford, and his team of snow-makers are on the slopes for 12-hour shifts. They can go four to five hours without a break to warm up, Sullivan said, and he layers up with fleece and wool, topped off with a wind-resistant protective shell. But the best way to keep warm, he said, is to keep moving.

“Even in sub-zero weather, when we get back to the pump house we’re usually sweating,” he said.

In New Britain, police Officer Matthew Smith was having a quiet patrol shift Friday, possibly because of the weather.

“Nobody is outside today. Everyone is staying in, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Smith spent part of his day looking for homeless people who might be trying to survive outside through the multi-day cold spell. The city tries to get them to someone they can stay with, or to a shelter.

“We do it regularly, check the local areas where people would stay,” Smith said.

New Britain police wear the warmest winter uniforms possible during periods like this, zipping the insulated liner into their jackets and carrying extra socks and even winter snow pants in case of emergency.

“We’ll wear the knit hats, and some officer will keep hand warmers in their pockets,” Smith said. “But you have to be able to move around and remain tactical. You can’t walk around dressed like a snowman.”

In rural Litchfield Country, the arctic cold has been a boon to the Kent Volunteer Fire Department, where they were printing tickets for the annual fundraiser to predict when the ice breaks up on the Housatonic River.

“I’m printing tickets today,” department Ice Watch chairman John Christian said Friday. “We’ll have ice this year.”

People buy $2 tickets and write the date and time in spring they think a plastic PVC tripod put out on the ice will break through melting ice and start moving in the frigid Housatonic River north of the Bull’s Bridge dam. A timing device on the tripod captures the exact time it moves. The winner splits the prize with the fire department.

The week’s bitter cold also has caused alarm among those who work with animals.

Karen Ward, president of the Enfield Dog Park Action Committee, cautioned dog owners to wipe their pets’ paws of the salt used on public streets and sidewalks, which can be harmful to the animals. In weather this cold, Ward said, owners also should limit the amount of time their pets spend outside.

“It’s dangerously cold out there,” she said. “It’s dangerous for humans so it’s dangerous for pets, too.”

Courant staff writers Dave Owens, Don Stacom, Bill Leukhardt and Mikaela Porter contributed to this story.

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