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In extreme cold, warm coats and gloves become more than accessories

Ticeia Lalo stood Friday in between racks of neatly sorted winter clothes inside True Bethel Baptist Church's mobile outreach bus looking for "a little bit of everything."

Her grandchildren, visiting from Virginia, needed winter coats and snow pants and her neighbor's son, who she brought with her, wanted gloves. He hadn't had any for a while, the 12-year-old boy said.

"I had to put my hands in my pockets," he said. But he found a nice pair in a bin next to the coats — black and waterproof. Next, he was searching for a headband to cover his ears.

It was 2 degrees outside at 1 p.m. Friday in Buffalo and the True Bethel bus was on its third stop of the day, just outside the Friendship Baptist Church on Clinton Street. True Bethel, with some help from Friendship as well as Colvin Cleaners, had collected 2,000 coats and other winter gear to give away.

Light snow was falling across Western New York on one of the coldest days in recent memory. With the wind chill, it felt like -17 degrees outside — cold enough that school districts across the region canceled school on Friday, for fear of children getting frostbite or hypothermia while waiting for school buses.

The extreme cold began Thursday night and was expected to encase Western New York in its icy grip through Sunday morning, with air temperatures hovering around zero and wind chills as low as the negative -20s. Such conditions are considered life-threatening, especially for the more vulnerable segments of our community — children, the elderly and sick, people with mental illness and the poor.

“This is the second coat drive that we’ve done this winter," said the Rev. Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel who is also the president of the Buffalo Common Council. "We worked with Colvin Cleaners in which more than 10,000 coats were given away this winter, but what happened was the demand never stopped and with the temperature now in the single digits and negative, we have people calling the church, coming to the church, who were asking for anything. They didn’t have a preference of any type of coat, any name brand. They’re just a lot of people out there right now who can not afford the right clothing for this type of weather."

Monica Edwards, a volunteer at Friday's coat giveaway, said she'd helped about 26 people find coats by midday Friday.

Among those who stopped by was Donnetta Willett, a social worker, who was on the hunt for winter coats for two clients. She found one for the woman, now she needed one for the man.

"A lot of people don't have jackets or gloves," Willett said.

That's extremely dangerous in weather like this, said Dr. Michael Manka, chief of emergency medicine at Erie County Medical Center. When the weather turns cold, he said, the emergency room starts seeing two kinds of cold-related cases: elderly or medically frail people who get disoriented outside and people who've had too much to drink to realize they're getting frostbite. "Since the onset of this bitter cold, we've had about a dozen cases," he said.

Dr. Michelle Penque, the interim medical director at Oishei Children's Hospital, said children are particularly susceptible because of their size. Babies and children who aren't verbal yet are also vulnerable because they can't express what's happening to them.

Keeping children inside best ensures they'll be safe, she said. And if you do have to take a child outside, she urged parents and guardians to dress their children in layers, cover as much of their exposed skin as possible and limit their time outside to a few minutes.

When wind chills dip into the negative 30s, just 10 minutes outside can lead to frostbite.

"I wouldn't want to be outside waiting for a bus for 10 minutes in this," Penque said.

Code Blue

The deep freeze has prompted night after night of  "Code Blue" alerts. The WNY Coalition for the Homeless arranges for three organizations to open shelters in Buffalo on nights when the temperature is 15 degrees or lower. The sites are at St. Luke Mission of Mercy, 321 Walden Ave.; Matt Urban Hope Center, 385 Padarewski Drive; and Harbor House, 241 Genesee St.

St. Luke has seen 40 to 50 people every "Code Blue" night, said Drew Bernstein, who runs that shelter. They're given warm food and cots to sleep in.

But it's hard to find volunteers to work the Code Blue overnights, said Michael Taheri, who runs a school at the church. "Everyone wants to help the sea turtles and the poor," Taheri said.

The people who come in from the cold are often mentally ill and can be a challenge to work with. He commended Bernstein for his dedication. He also asked anyone who wants to help to donate blankets and laundry soap to the shelter.

Run your tap

With the temperatures in single digits, the Erie County Water Authority urged customers with homes containing unheated basements, crawl spaces or sections of exposed pipe to let a trickle of water run from a faucets to prevent their pipes from freezing.

The extra cost of trickling water from a faucet is a tiny price to pay when compared with repairs involving a burst pipe, ECWA noted.

A surprise for immigrants

The bitter Buffalo cold can come as quite a surprise to newcomers -- especially those coming from parts of the world where there's no snow.

Mustafa Ali, program coordinator of the Hope Refugee Drop-in Center of the Jericho Road Community Health Center, said several clients stopped by the West Ferry Street offices who had no gloves Friday.

"Their hands were red," he said. He had to explain to them that gloves were absolutely necessary to get through a Buffalo winter.

He recalled his own experiences when his family was resettled in Buffalo in 2007. Ali grew up in Kenya where he had seen snow on mountain tops. "But I had never experienced snow," he said.

The first winter, his mother had washed his brother's jeans by hand and then hung them outside to dry.

"She went to get them and they were frozen," Ali said.

They quickly learned about the big washers and dryers they could use at a nearby laundromat, Ali said.

Hot fresh apple fritters were on the menu Friday at Friendship Baptist Church on Clinton Street where volunteers make hot meals for anyone in need most Fridays noon to 2 p.m. (Maki Becker/Buffalo News)

'They're not prepared'

At the same time the coat drive was going on outside Friendship Baptist, the church opened its doors for its weekly soup kitchen. Most Friday, the church feeds around 80 people.

Eva Smith, the head cook, made a hearty beef and vegetable soup, with lots of shredded beef and big hunks of potatoes and carrots for Friday's crew.

"I feed the people like I feed my family at home," she said, as she pulled out a tray of freshly baked apple fritters from the church's oven.

Among the regulars who come for Smith's home-style cooking are two men, Michael and Steven. They didn't want to give their last names. The men said they're not homeless and have part-time jobs, but like to stay warm at the downtown library and then walk to the church for the Friday meals because they're so good.

The men worried how some of the other people who come for meals will cope with the cold. And they wished the city would plow more and people would shovel their sidewalks.

The bitter cold this season, Michael said, felt familiar.

"It's like it was before the Blizzard of '77," he said.

"Don't start!" scolded Evetta Cannon, who described herself as the secretary, bookkeeper and "people keeper" at the church.

She's seen plenty of people underdressed for the weather this season, coming to the soup kitchen to warm up.

"They need coats. They need gloves. They're not prepared," she said. "That is pitiful."

News Staff Reporter Deidre Williams contributed to this report.






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