How bad is it? Measuring winter misery

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, January 27, 2014

JANESVILLE—Because it's not over, yet, we can't know if this winter will break any snowfall records or become the season with the most consecutive days of below-zero temperatures.

One thing is certain: This has been the most tiring winter in recent memory.

Yes, tiring.

And miserable, expensive, occasionally terrifying and sometimes absurd. How will we make up all those snow days? How will we get home without ending up in the ditch?

The National Weather Service issued a wind chill warning Monday that runs through noon today. Wind chills were expected to get down to minus 50 degrees overnight and to be between minus 20 and minus 30 today. At noon, the wind chill warning will become a wind chill advisory.

Has this winter really been worse that any other recently?

The average snowfall for the Janesville area is about 36 inches, according to John Whitcomb, city operations director. This year, we've already had 37.4 inches. It's the sixth-most snowfall we've had since 1948, according to Gazette weather records.

That doesn't seem so bad until you consider that we've had 14 snowfalls of 1 inch or more. Only two other winters since 1948 have had more such snowfalls.

In 2008-09, there were 20 snowfalls for a total of 61.5 inches of snow. In 1978-79 there were 15 snowfalls for 49.3 inches of snow.

Now consider this: This year has produced the second-most “heating degree days” since 1948.

Heating degree days are a common way utility companies measure the amount of home heating required for a given time period. The formula subtracts each day's average temperature from 65 to determine the number of degree days for each date.

The Janesville area accumulated 3,807 degree days through Sunday, and the year is not over yet. Only the winter of 1976-77 by this time had more—4, 185.

Another way to think of heating degree days is as the accumulation of cold. Often, we'll have a few days of warmer weather in December or January, stretches of 40-degree days that give us some relief.

Not this year.

When Whitcomb was asked about winter fatigue, he sort of sighed and recounted the winter from his perspective: “Snow over days, three freezing rain events—two of them that were exceptional—and now the bitter cold.”

What's it been like?

“We're constantly reacting to conditions,” Whitcomb said. “We've worked every weekend since Dec. 1 and on Christmas and New Year's”

Whitcomb can't remember the last winter season where they've had to put chains on the tires.

This year, they've had to do it twice.

“One of my senior operators said that this was the worst winter he's been through,” Whitcomb said.

Even so, Whitcomb said he doesn't hear much complaining from his plow drivers.

“Everybody understands that this is their job, and you're not going hear much grousing from them,” Whitcomb said.

Still, it's not easy.

“It does begin to wear sometimes,” he said. “It's like a family that always sees each other under less than ideal conditions.”

On Monday, staff at the Janesville Water Utility started their day at 4 a.m. with a broken water main.

The long duration of the cold weather has pushed the frost deeper into the ground. In addition, workers now find frozen water around the pipes, and that just means more work.

The winter hasn't been easy on homeowners who depend on propane, either.

When Tom Gustafson had the propane tank at his town of Turtle home filled at end of December, the price was $2.05 a gallon. When he got his propane tank filled at the end of January, it was $3.89 a gallon.

On Saturday, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency in response to the propane shortage. A news release from the governor's office stated that the shortage was due to an unusually cold winter, a wet fall that increased the demand for propane for grain drying and a major pipeline supplying propane being closed for maintenance from Nov. 28 to Dec. 18.

Gustafson wondered why they would close a pipeline for maintenance at the beginning of winter.

He's turned down his heat and brought in space heaters to make up the difference.

Most area school districts were closed because of the cold Monday, and by late afternoon all had canceled Tuesday classes, including Albany, Badger, Beloit, Beloit Turner, Big Foot, Brodhead, Clinton, Delavan-Darien, Edgerton, Ekhorn, Evansville, Janesville, Juda, Milton, Parkview, Whitewater and Williams Bay.

School closures sent parents scrambling for childcare.

Heather Jenkins, owner of Alternative Childcare in Janesville, said her daycare always receives a spike in calls the night before a school closing.

She said Sunday night was no different and expects the same tonight.

“Whenever we have closures, we have a spike in last-minute child care,” Jenkins said. “We had parents calling a lot last night.”

Jenkins said her daycare is equipped to handle around 10 children at any given time. It is a “walk-in” daycare that accepts appointments up to an hour in advance.

“A lot of the problems come when schools close and the day cares close, too,” Jenkins said. “If a parent has to go to work, they have to find somewhere for their kids to go.”

Jenkins said she was busy Monday and expects to be just as busy Tuesday, especially because parents may not have prepared to have their children out of school two days in a row.

Stacy Ransom, owner of Hey-Diddle-Diddle Day Care in Janesville, said although some daycare facilities close during bad weather, she keeps hers open because she understands that some parents still work.

“I do keep my child care center open despite schools closing and the cold weather because parents usually still need to work,” Ransom said. “Sometimes these are quieter days with less children attending … Parents should always have a back-up plan in mind for their child in case school or child care is unavailable for whatever reason.”

Trinity Episcopal Church in Janesville was opened as a warming center Monday and will once again be Tuesday.

“It's what we're supposed to do, to help people,” Anne Wanke, member of the church, said.

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