A bitter Arctic air mass coupled with wind gusts topping 40 miles per hour arrived Thursday, making it feel like the single digits outside and leaving Baltimore-area officials scrambling to accommodate the homeless safely indoors.
The frigid air blowing into the region from the northwest will persist through Friday, when temperatures are forecast at dawn in the mid- to high teens before rising to a high of 29 degrees. Before the cold departs for the weekend, an icy winter storm could hit northwestern suburbs, possibly dropping up to an inch of snow and ice, followed by as much as a quarter of an inch of freezing rain.
Underscoring the need for shelter even when the weather isn't as extreme as it was Thursday, a man was found dead Saturday morning after apparently falling asleep on a bench outside Baltimore City Hall, city officials and homeless service providers said.
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said the city is preparing for a cold night and winter, trying to get the homeless off the streets and into empty beds at shelters. Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen issued a Code Blue advisory from Wednesday night through noon Friday.
"My team has been working all week on this," Pugh said. "We have to make sure we get people off of the streets. I took time to visit a shelter right there on Fallsway and Monument because I want to see the conditions of the shelters. … I can tell you they're making every effort to accommodate everyone. They're going around the city. They've assured me they have enough beds for anyone who is homeless."
Pugh said there were at least 20 nearby shelter beds that could have accommodated the man found in front of City Hall.
"That says something too about how we go about making sure people are up off the street," she said.
Three people died last year of cold-weather-related causes such as hypothermia in Maryland, state officials said.
If someone encounters a person in need of shelter, they can call 311 in Baltimore to assist the person.
On Thursday, with air temperatures hovering in the low to mid-20s, gusty winds pushed the wind chill into the single digits throughout much of the day. It peaked around 1 p.m., when the air was 24 degrees and a 21-mph wind made it feel like 9 degrees. By 4 p.m., the wind chill fell to 3 degrees, with an air temperature of just 20 degrees and unrelenting winds.
A gust reached 46 mph at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport at 8:05 a.m. Thursday, according to the National Weather Service
At a meeting Thursday of the board of Journey Home, which works to end homelessness, Antonia Fasanelli said she was concerned that the city's threshold for activating a Code Blue designation and opening up 100 additional beds for the homeless was too low, at 13 degrees with wind chill.
"Why reserve the 100 beds until it's 13 degrees?" said Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project. "People are dying well before it hits 13 degrees wind chill."
But Terry Hickey, who works in Pugh's office, said the city is trying to ensure that no one is turned away. If shelters are full, transportation is available to take them to overflow shelters, he said.
"If it's freezing ... no one will be turned away," he said.
In several suburban counties — including Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll — officials set up daytime warming centers at libraries and senior centers.
They also set up emergency overnight shelters to keep people out of the cold after dark, including the North Point Government Center in Dundalk for Baltimore County and the cold-weather shelter in Westminster operated by Human Services Programs of Carroll County.
Anne Arundel County opens its four police stations overnight for people to stay warm. The nonprofit Arundel House of Hope also operates a wintertime emergency shelter that rotates among churches and other houses of worship, serving dozens of people each night.
Harford County activated its freezing-weather plan this week. People without a safe place to stay indoors can go to the Harford County Action Agency in Edgewood, where they will be assigned to permanent shelters or given hotel vouchers if there's no room at shelters, said county spokeswoman Cindy Mumby.
Harford's rotating winter shelter hosted by churches will open for the season Monday.
"As it turns out, we had a cold snap before then," Mumby said.
In Annapolis, officials spent this week getting the word out to homeless people about the approaching cold snap and setting up an emergency shelter at the city's Stanton Center. It's the second time this winter that the emergency shelter has been opened.
The high in Baltimore was 27 degrees Thursday afternoon in Baltimore, according to the National Weather Service. That's several degrees lower than normal for this time of year. A wind advisory was in effect through 3 p.m. Winds from the west were expected to ease overnight, with occasional gusts over 20 mph.
Lows were forecast to drop to the lower teens overnight into Friday morning, but the 10- to 15-mph winds forecast through the night could make it feel as cold as 1 degree below zero, according to the weather service.
The cold spell is expected to end with a period of snow and ice Friday night into Saturday morning. Then a dramatic warming is expected, with highs around 50 amid rain Saturday and possibly the mid-50s Sunday when showers are in the forecast.
More seasonable temperatures return next week.
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Alison Knezevich and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.