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Cold snap nearly unprecedented in Portage but relief in sight

January 31, 2019

Columbia County Sheriff Roger Brandner said in the 27 years he’s been with the sheriff’s office, he has never seen county government buildings get shut down consecutive days due to cold weather.

Since the courthouse has been closed for most of the week, schedules for transporting inmates to and from the jail have changed as hearings are delayed. But otherwise the sheriff’s office won’t be affected as much as other departments, Brandner said.

Many businesses, schools and county government were closed Wednesday, and county board leadership decided to keep county buildings closed for yet another day because of the intense cold snap. Schools also will remain closed today.

The National Weather Service said wind chills had plunged to between 45 and 55 degrees below zero Wednesday. People exposed to the cold without protective clothing could be at risk of getting frostbite within five minutes. A wind chill warning remains in effect until 10 a.m. today.

Weather forecasts call for a high of minus 4 today with an overnight low of minus 6. Friday’s high is expected to be 18 (low of 13), followed by a big warmup over the weekend with a high of 45 degrees forecast for Sunday.

Marquette County’s emergency management director, Aaron Williams, said highway workers, county health staff, the sheriff’s office, EMS personnel and multiple police departments have been closely collaborating this week to continue to advise the public on safety and to be ready for anything.

Williams urges the people to continue to prepare and plan ahead for weather events to remain safe.

“We’re pretty resilient here,” Williams said, adding that Marquette County has more deputies on patrol than usual and emergency workers on call as additional plows are keeping roads clear.

Although Williams said he thinks the public has heeded authorities’ warnings and taken precautions to be safe, he said crucial public services are available and authorities continue to monitor the situation.

“During this cold snap, we recommend limiting your time outside,” Williams said. “Make a plan to be inside, and have emergencies supplies ready.”

Kathy Johnson, the emergency management coordinator for Columbia County, was on call if needed while conducting training Wednesday, and she said dispatch services remained at the ready.

Authorities in Columbia and Marquette counties said no weather-related fatalities have been reported as of Wednesday, but the public should remain vigilant.

The Portage Public Library, which had been designated Monday as a warming center, closed its doors Tuesday at 5 p.m. and remained shuttered Wednesday. Johnson said people who need somewhere safe to go should instead head to the basement of the Portage Municipal Building, 115 W. Pleasant St.

Portage Fire Chief Clayton Simonson said the fire department had responded this week to a broken water pipe and a furnace that went out. He said no structure fires have been reported within city limits.

“Thank God,” Simonson said. “I’m just happy that we don’t have any.”

Simonson is asking residents to help by shoveling three feet around fire hydrants in case firefighters need to use them.

Portage Water Utility Superintendent Kevin Bortz said he’s pleased to see how many people are clearing snow from around hydrants. The city can’t require such service, he said, but it’s gratifying to see people taking steps to ensure firefighters’ access to a water source if they need it.

The city’s water lines are holding up pretty well in the frigid weather, Bortz said. There have been no breaks in water mains or laterals (“knock on wood,” he said).

But there have been a few instances of water meters freezing. If people notice partial loss of water service, such as the water running from one faucet but not another, a frozen meter might be the culprit.

The best way to keep a meter from freezing is to make sure the heat in the house gets to the area (usually the basement) where the meter is located.

Bortz said the city is not seeing anything close to the widespread pipe freezing that occurred the winter of 2013-14.

In that winter, when the cold snap started much earlier in the season than it did this year, water mains and laterals were so prone to freezing, some residents were advised to keep a faucet running around the clock to lessen the likelihood of freezing.

No one is being advised to do that now, Bortz said. But if such a measure becomes necessary in a particular area, the affected property owners will be notified by officials of the water department.

Anyone experiencing water problems should call the water utility at 608-742-4727.

Portage Police Chief Ken Manthey said he was allowing police secretaries to leave early Wednesday due to the severe cold. Emergency and police services were still available as needed.

Columbia County offices were closed Wednesday and will remain closed today, including those in the Administration Building, the Health and Human Services Building and the Columbia County Courthouse.

County Board Chairman Vern Gove said he made the unprecedented decision in consultation with Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf, the three Columbia County Circuit Court judges and Brandner, for the safety of employees.

“We don’t want to see any of our employees get hurt or stranded,” Gove said.

He added that even as a detective lieutenant in the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, a post from which he retired in 2000, he has never seen weather conditions like these.

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