Bitter cold takes over in Harford, closing schools, hampering emergency responses

The single-digit temperatures gripping Harford County and the periodic snow are hampering school schedules, hindering emergency responders and forcing the homeless to seek refuge.

Much of the bitter cold will be a memory this weekend when temperatures are expected to be in the upper 30s and 40s, and even into the 50s early next week.


The worst of the cold might be over, with the high Friday expected to be around 25.

A chance of snow could affect the morning commute, according to a special statement issued by the National Weather Service.

One to 2 inches are possible north of Baltimore and if the threat does materialize, many untreated roads could quickly turn icy, leading to dangerous traveling conditions, multiple accidents and extensive delays, the Weather Service said.

What is the polar vortex? It's not a new weather phenomenon — it's an area of frigid air and low atmospheric pressure over each of Earth's poles. But it is making an unusual intrusion into the eastern United States, actually the result of warming at the North Pole.

County crews intend to be out on the roads around 7 a.m. checking on conditions, according to Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for Harford County government.

“But there is enough salt on the road from prior treatment,” she said.

Weather models the county is looking at indicate snow could start around mid-day.

The cold weather has been a result of the jet stream, which has big dips and troughs, and the weather varies depending how far those troughs drop down, according to Gerald Luft, a meteorologist at the Aberdeen Test Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

“This week it’s been across the Midwest and eastern United States,” Luft said.


Another trough is setting up along the West Coast, and that warm air is what will move into the area over the weekend and into next week, he said.

Temperatures have fluctuated drastically before, he said.

“It’s not abnormal,” Luft said. “It doesn’t happen that often, but it’s not totally out of the normal.”

School closings, delays

Schools were shut down Tuesday and Wednesday and the opening was delayed two hours Thursday because of road conditions and weather forecasts, said Jillian Lader, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools.

Delayed openings were planned the night before, with cancellation notifications early in the morning Tuesday and Wednesday.

When dealing with inclement weather, the school system looks at “the totality of the circumstances,” Lader said.


The school system uses weather forecasts are used and if a weather situation calls for it, inclement weather protocols begin early in the morning, around 4 a.m., Lader said.

That includes transportation staff physically observing and evaluating the weather conditions and forecast, temperatures, the road conditions, both in Harford County and surrounding counties to which we may be traveling, and other data that will assist the superintendent in making a decision. School officials talk with county facilities, if needed.

“The superintendent receives all of this information from the HCPS Transportation and Facilities Department,” Lader said. “If the decision is made to cancel any or all activities, it is communicated to the public as early as possible.”

Hazardous conditions

Firefighters encountered difficult conditions in battling a house fire Wednesday night in the 4000 block of Prospect Road in Whiteford.

The exterior wall of a trailer home caught fire around 5:30 p.m.

Harford County athletes, as well as a number of others around the state, were forced into a two-day break this week.

About 50 firefighters from Whiteford Volunteer Fire Company were assisted by companies for Harford and York County in Pennsylvania and had the two-alarm fire under control within an hour, according to a notice of investigation from the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

Both residents barely escaped the blaze, the cause of which is under investigation, and the home is considered a complete loss, according to the fire marshal. The estimated damage is $50,000 to the trailer, owned by Robert and Jacqueline Woods, and $25,000 to its contents.

One pet bird died from smoke inhalation and six others were rescued and in the care of Harford County Animal Control, the fire marshal said. Four cats were believed to have escaped.

Weather conditions play a significant factor in fighting a fire like this one, Jennifer Chenworth, a spokesperson for the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association, said Wednesday night.

“It’s now 9 degrees outside. It’s pretty hazardous,” Chenworth said. “As soon as the water hits the ground, it freezes, causing additional hazards.”

Sometimes an issue when battling a blaze in below-freezing temperatures is establishing a water source, especially in an area not served by hydrants.

In this case, however, the source was established quickly, Chenworth said.

Parts of the Chesapeake Bay began to ice over Wednesday as an Arctic front brought the chill of the polar vortex into Maryland.

More firefighters than usual are also needed because of the cold.

“The weather takes a toll on them,” she said.

In addition to slipping and falling on ice as they fight the fire, firefighters are also subject to hypothermia and frostbite, she said.

“They stay somewhat warm, with all the turnout gear on, but they’re still cold,” Chenworth said. “Cold is definitely a significant factor.”

When the weather is as severe as it is, the hazardous materials rehab unit — which serves as a heating or cooling center based on conditions — responds to a scene.

Helping the homeless

Harford’s permanent and temporary homeless shelters have altered their operations during the recent cold snap, their directors said.

The county’s only year-round shelter, the Welcome One Emergency Shelter, operated by Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United, has been more flexible with its homeless residents.

Typically, residents can stay in the shelters overnight Monday through Friday but must leave by 8 a.m. to work on getting jobs, going to medical appointments or other such activities, Executive Director Liz Tutino said.

“During the cold weather we’ve been flexible with those time frames,” Tutino said. “We try to work with them based on the weather.”

Residents were allowed to stay until 11 a.m. Thursday when the cold warnings were lifted, she said.

The emergency rotating shelter operated by the Hope for Homeless Alliance saw a slight uptick in its bed use earlier in the week as the weather started to get colder.

When the shelter moved to Joppatowne Christian Church on Wednesday — it moves to a new location each week — the church removed some of its pews in the back of the church to accommodate more people, Howard Magness, the volunteer chairman of the alliance, said.


On a couple of the colder weather days this week, the residents were permitted to say at the shelter all day. Normally they are taken to the day shelter in Edgewood, he said.

Warming centers

In anticipation of frigid temperatures overnight Wednesday and into Thursday, Harford County opened a warming center in Abingdon for residents who may have lost power or lacked heat and needed a warm place to go.

One person came to the warming center, according to Mumby.

The center was at Mountain Christian Church in Abingdon and closed at 5 p.m. Thursday, according to the county. Mumby said she didn’t anticipate it staying open past Thursday evening, but the county would re-evaluate later in the day.

A previous warming center was open at Darlington Volunteer Fire Company.

The Harford County Department of Emergency Services, under the administration of County Executive Barry Glassman, partnered with the church to provide this temporary warming center for citizens in need.