Prolonged cold snap strains utility companies, emergency responders

  • Still in shorts from after-school sports practice, Daniel Chase, 13, dashes for warmth of his mother’s car after being dropped off by the Rundlett Middle School bus off Mountain Road on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Standing amid dozens of employees answering calls from customers Tuesday afternoon, John Rymes of Rymes Propane and Oil had an explanation for why things were so frantic: “Unprecedented cold creates unprecedented usage.”

Concord-based Rymes got so many calls from customers seeking oil Tuesday that its phone system was overwhelmed, occasionally telling callers that the number was no longer in working order. This led Rymes to post a message on Facebook asking customers to be patient, or to email in non-urgent requests.

Rymes said the company’s phone system had not failed and said the company was serving all its prepaid and automatic-refill customers, even if it couldn’t deal with all of what are known as will-call customers, who may have an account but only get deliveries when they call in and ask for them.

Heating oil firms around the state have been scrambling to deal with the prolonged cold. Executive Councilor Joseph Kenney, a Wakefield Republican, said in an email blast Tuesday that there is not any shortage of heating oil in New Hampshire but “there is a shortage of drivers and a slowdown in distribution.”

Kenney said the state’s Director of Emergency Management is working with municipal emergency directors to solve problems for residents in dire situations. He encouraged those in need to reach out to Community Action Agency and the Office of Strategic Initiatives for more information about moderate and low-income home energy assistance.

Half of New Hampshire’s residences are heated with oil, according to New Hampshire Employment Security. That’s one of the highest percentages in the nation.

The recent arctic blast, which sent temperatures as low as 18 below zero around Concord, is not unusual but has not been experienced by residents for some time, National Weather Service Meteorologist Eric Schwibs told the Monitor.

Wednesday’s temperatures are expected to reach 20 degrees, which is still below normal, Schwibs said. A coastal storm is forecast for Thursday and will bring several inches of snow to the area. It will also usher in another blast of cold air that will result in temperatures as low as 10 to 15 degrees below zero with the wind chill on Friday and Saturday nights.

Perry Plummer, the state’s director of emergency management, encouraged people who need oil or gas to remain persistent and keep calling their provider. Anyone in danger of running out of fuel is urged to call 2-1-1 for assistance.

Yet many calls to local heating oil companies were met with a busy signal Wednesday and even when the phone was answered, three area oil firms said they were too busy to talk to the press.

One person who could talk was Tom Prescott, president of Johnny Prescott Oil in Concord, who said his company was handling its own customers as well as some people who could not get service from other firms.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from Rymes customers,” Prescott claimed.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve seen cold weather like this,” Prescott said. “This weather is what separates the men from the boys in this business, and I think we’ve got a bunch of boys in the business.”

The prospect of people scrambling to get heating oil in the midst of a prolonged cold snap after Christmas brings memories of the Fred Fuller Oil debacle of early January 2014 during the so-called polar vortex. That Hudson-based company reported phone problems to the point that the state set up a special hotline to help Fuller Oil customers get through. After delivery problems reoccurred during a second cold snap in March, worsened by financial and legal issues involving the owner, the company went under and was sold to Rymes that fall.

Homeless and cold

The ongoing frigid weather is causing concern throughout New Hampshire, including at area homeless shelters where workers were expecting a steady increase in the days and weeks ahead. Ellen Groh, executive director of Concord Coalition to End Homeless, said their resource center has been open an hour or two later each day to accommodate those in need while staff complete work.

Jake King, who manages the coalition’s winter shelter, said he worries about what options are available to the city’s homeless during the daytime when temperatures plummet like they have in the past week. He said places provide short-term refuge at best and weekend hours are far more limited.

Often when severe weather is predicted, those who are homeless find short-term housing solutions with family members and friends, King said. Both King and Groh said they believe a lot of their regular shelter guests made those accommodations in advance of the arctic air this past holiday week.

Concord fire Chief Dan Andrus said the department has seen more cases of hypothermia in recent days, which he called “unusual in an urban environment.” He said a concerned family member recently called fire officials after a loved one had suffered from long-term exposure to the cold and was displaying signs of impairment. He also said the department has responded to an increase in calls for people with cardiac and lung problems due to the subzero temperatures.

“There are signs, though, as we get into early next week that we could warm back up,” said Schwibs, the meteorologist.

Any kind of warmup could mean more activity on the slopes and snowmobile trails. New Hampshire Fish and Game Captain David Walsh said New Hampshire residents seem to be staying indoors during these frigid blasts.

“If the weather conditions were different, we’d definitely see an increase in activity,” Walsh said of the state’s snowmobile trails. “People seem to be using their common sense and not venturing out.”

Walsh encouraged those who are planning to hit the trails to leave their itinerary with family members or friends so that if a rescue is initiated emergency responders will know where to go.

“We always try to reiterate the message of ‘Prepare for the unexpected,’ and to not go out alone,” he said.

(Staff writer Caitlin Andrews con tributed to this report.)

Editor’s note: This story was changed to reflect the advice of the state officer of emergency management. Attempts by the Monitor to reach the office Wednesday were made to the incorrect phone number. Residents are urged to call 2-1-1 or 271-2231.