Cold sets records for electricity use, packs shelters

It did not set an all-time low for New Hampshire, but the frigid cold and blustery winds closed and delayed schools, set records for winter electricity demand, and has at least a couple of hospitals speculating about a baby boom in nine months.

In Nashua, the cold weather packed local shelters and played a part in a Friday afternoon fire at a local mobile home park.

Fire officials estimated about $5,000 in damage from the blaze at 10 Mark St., which was caused by a propane heater that residents had set up under the home to thaw frozen plumbing.

Nobody was hurt in the fire that began at about 4:20 p.m., Fire Inspector/Investigator Richard Wood said.

Firefighters found light smoke coming from under the mobile home and quickly extinguished the fire after tracing the smoke to the smoldering pipes, Wood said.

Robert and Evelyn Poulin, who have lived in the home for about seven years, are temporarily homeless due to electrical and plumbing damage from the fire.

As firefighters worked under the home, a visibly shaken Evelyn Poulin walked across the street to a neighbor’s home carrying a manila envelope with insurance documents. Poulin said after the plumbing froze, she took the advice of a neighbor who recommended setting up the propane heater under the home to thaw the pipes.

“All of a sudden, my husband said the bathroom lights weren’t working and I went outside and saw smoke,” she said.

The home is insured, but Poulin said she is not sure where she and her husband will be staying in the meantime.

Officials at the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter reported packed conditions at both of the nonprofit agency’s shelters. Together the shelters have 30 beds, but due to the extreme cold, the agency has not been turning away anyone in need, said executive director Lisa Christie.

“We have had people on cots and couches,” Christie said.

The shelters, which are normally closed in the daytime hours, have been kept open and staffed throughout the day during the cold weather, she said. The agency has also been receiving lots of donated coats, gloves and other warm clothing, which has been going out the door as fast as it’s coming in, she said.

The agency is requesting donations of women’s gloves and chemical hand warmers, she said.

“We will be happy when this cold snap abates a little bit so that the people that are outside more than us can stay warm,” Christie said.

At the weather observatory atop Mount Washington, staffers were disappointed the overnight temperatures dipped “only” to 45 below zero at the 6,288-foot summit. The lowest official recorded temperature in New Hampshire was 47 below on the mountain in 1934.

“We just figured if we are going to get this cold, why not just a couple more degrees and shatter all the important records?” meteorologist Tim Markle said Friday morning.

But Markle said they set four daily record-low temperatures from Tuesday to Friday, with lows ranging from 41 below to 45 below. He said it’s been painfully cold on the mountain and throughout the state because nothing has stood in the way of air blowing in from the Arctic.

“The air we are experiencing right now is coming straight from the North Pole, and basically with snow cover and especially with Hudson Bay frozen already, there is no catalyst there to moderate this air mass as it comes down,” he said.

Temperatures were far below zero throughout the state overnight, and barely getting above zero during Friday in some spots.

“We basically are experiencing the same temperatures as they would up in the Arctic Circle range in Canada, up in the Northwest Territories, or even up toward the pole,” Markle said. “That’s very unusual for up here.”

Also unusual was a prank the observatory crew pulled Thursday afternoon. With the temperature at 39 below, and wind chill around 97 below, the crew pulled off its layers of shirts and ran outside.

“We were jumping up and down and we stood out there long enough to have a picture taken and ran back inside,” Markle said. He called it “a little cold and tingly outside.”

He said, “We knew when to run in. We knew if we were out there maybe 10 more seconds, we’d start feeling some bad things.”

Elsewhere in the mountains, Fish and Game Department officials released the identity of a park ranger who had been hiking since Monday and was found dead Thursday.

Kenneth Holmes, 37, of Athol, Mass., who worked at Mount Monadnock, told friends by cell phone on Tuesday that he planned to stay one more night after his friends left and he would be hitchhiking home Wednesday.

That’s when temperatures fell to minus 44 and the wind chill approached 100 degrees below zero. He died of hypothermia, officials said.

Friend Bonnie Beauchemin said Holmes was an avid outdoorsman. Beauchemin said Holmes would often tell stories about how he helped rescue lost hikers on Mount Monadnock.

“He knew what he was doing,” she said. “I don’t think he realized how cold it was going to get.”

Schools were closed or delayed all over the state Friday, as school officials worried about straining local electricity grids, heating their buildings and putting kids in danger.

The deep freeze in New Hampshire set records for electricity demand in the state during wintertime.

Public Service of New Hampshire said the records were set for Wednesday and Thursday. The highest peak, reached Thursday, was 1,821 megawatts. That surpasses the previous record of 1,806 megawatts reached the day before.

In summer, when demand is even greater due to air conditioning use, the state’s highest-ever electricity demand was 1,934 megawatts on Aug. 14, 2002.

And how have people been keeping warm in the meantime? Some maternity wards figure people have been staying indoors – and that could result in a baby boom around October.

Valerie Beauregard, associate director of maternal and child health at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, said many times when they have a busy spell in the maternity ward, they count back nine months and find a blizzard or hurricane or some other event that keeps people indoors.

Mary Peskovitz, director of the Family Center at Exeter Hospital, said many different kinds of events can lead to sudden jumps in the number of deliveries.

“After September 11, we saw an increase. People just hunkered down and stayed home more,” she told Foster’s Daily Democrat.

Regarding the cold spell, she said, “People don’t get out as much. . . . They’re cuddling together more – use your imagination.”