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Rolling with winter’s low blows

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By Liz Kowalczyk and Michele Richinick
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / January 24, 2011

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Bay State residents woke up this morning to what was forecast to be the most frigid temperatures in years and braced for another possible significant snowfall midweek.

State and city officials yesterday warned residents about the health dangers of the cold, opened shelters, and expanded fuel-assistance hotlines. But as of late yesterday afternoon, officials reported no major problems — although they said the risk of frostbite and hypothermia, frozen pipes, and dead car batteries would rise overnight as temperatures fell well below freezing.

Homeless residents in Boston and other cities remained a major worry.

Lyndia Downie, president of the Pine Street Inn in Boston, said that over the weekend, the shelter sent out extra vans at 4 and 6 p.m. — in addition to the two that roam the city’s streets starting at 9 p.m. — to offer warm beds to the homeless.

“We have been trying to get people to come in during the day, so we can avoid stuff happening at 3 or 4 in the morning,’’ she said. Overnight Saturday into Sunday morning, van workers found 60 people staying outside but convinced just two to come to the shelter, Downie said.

All the city’s beds for the homeless were full, so the inn put up 71 people on cots and mats on the floor overnight Saturday. Downie advised residents who are worried about a homeless person outside in dangerous weather to call 911.

Temperatures at Boston’s Logan Airport registered 22 degrees yesterday afternoon, but forecasters predicted they would drop to minus 5 degrees overnight, with the wind chill making it feel like minus 25 degrees. Today will be sunny, meteorologists said, but temperatures will not rise above 10 degrees.

Western Massachusetts, particularly the Connecticut River Valley, will have it even worse. Cities and towns there were facing temperatures of minus 15 overnight — feeling like minus 30 with the wind chill. It was expected to warm to only 5 to 7 degrees today. Meteorologists said it is the coldest snap since Jan. 22, 2005.

The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals warned people to keep cats inside and take dogs for only brief walks. Governor Deval Patrick’s office urged safe use of space heaters. And the US Coast Guard in Boston cautioned the fishing industry about freezing sea spray.

Despite being at sea for eight days, at times waist-deep in water on his boat with winds whipping 30 to 40 miles per hour, fisherman Marty Gorham said it was not all bad. Gorham, who works for Atlantic Coast Seafood Inc., returned yesterday and was unloading fish at the Boston Fish Pier.

“We like this weather,’’ he said while holding a cup of coffee. “It’s good for the fish. The cold weather drives them out of the shallow water into the deep water.’’

Tory Bramante, owner of the company, said at noon that he expected to be at the pier for at least six more hours to unload 60,000 pounds of fish brought in by fishermen. “There’s more of the fleet out at sea that has to come in,’’ he said. “If we weren’t to work today, we would be that much backed up tomorrow.’’

In Springfield early yesterday morning, with the temperature hovering around 5 degrees, Dave Wilson, 56, said the weather has scared away customers from the Cozy Cafe, a family-operated bar and grill he helps run.

“The weather has definitely been a factor, and it’s really just killing us,’’ he said. “Business is down about 60 percent.’’

Wilson said business has been slow since the snowstorm two weeks ago. And he does not expect it to pick up this week, with more snow expected.

Charlie Foley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, said forecasters are tracking a potential winter storm that could drop 6 or more inches of snow on the region Wednesday, but he said the forecast is still uncertain.

“It has the potential to be a significant storm,’’ he said, “but that could change.’’

But yesterday, everyone was talking about the extreme cold.

Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital emergency department, said people who are not warmly dressed in layers, or who are wearing wet clothing, can experience frostbite or hypothermia in an hour or less when it gets this cold. As of yesterday, the hospital had not seen any patients suffering from weather-related health problems.

Peter Judge, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman, said as of yesterday afternoon, his agency had not responded to any major problems. About 40 people had called the 2-1-1 hotline run by the United Way, he said, asking for the location of shelters and numbers to call if they ran out of fuel.

On the sidewalk at the intersection of Washington and State streets, Julio Cortez stood next to his cart, which was filled with winter hats, gloves, and scarves and took a pragmatic approach.

“People say, ‘How can you do it?’ The only way I can do it is prepare,’’ Cortez said behind a winter face mask that covered everything but his eyes.

Outside Taj Boston, doorman Abraham Assaf tolerated the cold temperature under heat lamps. “I am cold, believe me,’’ said Assaf, a doorman for 24 years. He said he keeps warm during his 8 1/2-hour shift by thinking warm and moving around.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop on Newbury Street was open yesterday. But after three hours, Jen Graham had not sold any ice cream. Her only customer up to that point ordered hot chocolate. Graham said, “When it’s this slow we do cleaning projects and restocking.’’

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.