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Homeless fill shelters as cold weather moves in

South Carolinians are used to aggravating cold. What's happening this week is an extended blast of pipe-freezing, car-battery-sapping, homeless shelter-filling, life-threatening cold.

"As long as you lay in one fetal position, you can stay warm," said Tommy Davis, who has huddled under two blankets and a plastic poncho on the streets in Columbia this week. "But if the wind picks up, then your blanket blows off. Then you can stay warmer just walking around than trying to sleep."

Still, Davis hasn't joined the parade of homeless to area shelters. He'd rather brave the cold than put up with the noise and the rules at the shelters.

"I'm all smiles waiting on tonight," he said, anticipating temperatures around 20 early today.

The larger shelters - Columbia's Winter Shelter and the Oliver Gospel Mission - have been filled this week as overnight lows dropped into the teens Monday and Tuesday. With the lows forecast in the teens again this weekend, the shelters recognize they might be needed even more.

"We can't get any fuller," said Wayne Fields, director of Oliver Gospel Mission, which added 32 temporary mats to its usual allotment of 98 beds. "But if they miss the bus to the Winter Shelter and they come to our doors, we'll find a way to help them."

The Winter Shelter, run for the city by Cooperative Ministries, hit its capacity of 240 people Sunday and Monday nights. Both nights, a dozen people were taken by bus from the Winter Shelter to the overflow shelter in the gymnasium at Martin Luther King Park near Five Points, said Eric Cassell, Columbia's community development administrator.

People staying at Oliver Gospel Mission or the two city shelters must leave during the day. Many find refuge in public buildings downtown, including the county library.

"Sitting in the library is a reprieve for me," said Davis, who was sitting with a friend named David, who wouldn't give his last name.

While he also would rather live on the street than in a shelter, David is one of the people taking advantage of the warmth at Oliver Gospel Mission. "It's the wind that kills you," David said.

Oliver Gospel Mission and the Salvation Army also reported larger than normal crowds for their evening meals this week.

"Everyone who does not have a permanent home right now is fighting the cold," said Melani Miller, grants coordinator for the Salvation Army. "You can see it in their faces, the weariness."

Even those with a home can suffer.

Calls to the Salvation Army for help with utility bills skyrocket in cold months, and so do the number of deaths from house fires.

In the past decade, 549 of the 821 fire deaths in the state came in the cold-weather months of November through April. Many were accidents sparked by efforts to fight the cold.

"People do desperate things to keep warm," said John Reich, state fire marshal. "People use stoves, ovens, kerosene heaters."

Five people died in house fires as the cold spell began Saturday - three in Honea Path, one in Sumter and one in Greenwood.

Even when the house is heated, exposed water pipes can freeze and burst.

Calls to repair broken water pipes began streaming into Aero Plumbing on Monday and barely had slowed to a trickle a day later, co-owner Greg Mackie said. The Columbia company had nearly 30 burst pipe calls over two days, more than it had all of January last year.

Aero has put four plumbers on standby overnight duty, rather than the usual one, Mackie said. And the company plans to have employees come to the office over the weekend rather than use an answering service to handle the expected increase in calls.

The big problems have come from pipes close to outside walls, such as those stretching to upper floors, and outside faucets. People need to let faucets trickle hot water, not just drip, Mackie said.

Sluggish car batteries prompted 1,226 calls to AAA Carolinas on Monday. That's 45 percent more than the previous four Mondays, according to David E. Parsons, chief executive of AAA Carolinas. Batteries require more amps to crank in cold weather.

Of course, the more serious problem for drivers could arrive later this week, when snow is forecast for the Carolinas.

The National Weather Service has increased the possibility for snow in the Midlands to 40 percent Thursday night and early Friday, but forecasters still expect little accumulation, or none at all. In other words, the chance of missing school for a snow day are less than 40 percent.

In the meantime, many schoolchildren aren't letting a little cold force them to give up that wonderful dash to the playground at recess.

"We just try to use common sense," said Sandlapper Elementary School principal Linda Hall. "They need the activity, they desire it. They are just not staying out so long."

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