Subzero temperatures descended on the region early Thursday morning, leading to increased use of warming centers and a warning from a wilderness survival expert to be smart about the cold.

Elsewhere in the community, schools reacted by keeping children inside, while police noted a shift in criminal activity.

In Waterville, the temperatures reached a low of 8 below zero early Thursday morning. By 9 a.m., it had warmed to zero degrees. The air was relatively calm, although wind chills did reach a low of 14 below zero on Wednesday night.

Eight below zero is the lowest Jan. 3 temperature in Waterville since 1999, according to Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Hawley said the lowest temperature ever recorded for that date is minus 27, set in 1918.

In Augusta, it was technically warmer than in Waterville, with temperatures hovering around 1 for most of Thursday morning, but stronger wind created a wind chill factor low of 15 below around midnight Wednesday.

Local charities say that high fuel costs and the poor economy have combined to create a larger need for their warming centers, where people can eat, drink and socialize in comfort.

Tina Chapman is the president of United Way of Mid-Maine, which operates a warming center on Water Street in Waterville.

She said that the cold snap causes the 20-25 people who use the center on an average day to stay for longer and put off errands.

“They just tend to be there all day,” she said.

The center is open to anyone who would like to enjoy a warm place without running up heating bills at home, but Chapman said that many of the regulars are from a local homeless shelter and lack vehicles.

“Whenever they need to do anything, they are walking around town,” she said. “It just makes things more challenging.”

Three Farmington churches have joined to provide a warming center to area residents on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the past four winters.

“We’ve had people tell us the only way they could stay warm enough was to stay in bed,” the Rev. Susan Crane of the Henderson Memorial Baptist Church said. “People can’t afford to heat their homes to the level they would like.”

Thursday, 37 people came when the center opened for the first time this season at Old South Congregational Church. The center averaged 30 people a day last season. 

St. Joseph’s Parish, the third church participating in the program, is scheduled to host the warming center later in the season.

Coordinator Shirley Waddell said center guests passed the time on the first day by playing cribbage and card games, doing crossword puzzles or sewing.

The people come to get out of the cold, Waddell said, but are even more interested in the companionship that the community provides.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that community is the most important defense against the cold, according to outdoor survival expert Mike Douglas, who runs the Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta.

Douglas said that being in touch with other people who can help in case of a crisis is the single most important factor in surviving the elements.

“Without community, this far away from the equator, our species is done for,” Douglas said. “The cold can kill us in an hour if we don’t have any protection. Community is the first defense against the cold.

The second one is technology, and it is a poor substitute.”

Nationwide, about 1,300 people die every year from exposure to excessive natural cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 67 percent of the victims of hypothermia-related deaths were males.

Douglas urged the public to take precautions to avoid a tragedy, even if they are not planning an outdoor adventure in subzero temperatures.

“We live in a little bubble of warm air that’s given to us by our thermostat or our car heater,” he said.

“When we leave that bubble, we are doing so at our own peril. It’s a very thin, fragile line. A woman wearing high heels with car problems on 95 outside Houlton is suddenly in a life and death situation.”

At China Elementary School, assistant principal Darlene Pietz said children have not been allowed outside during recess for most of the week because of the frigid temperatures. Pietz said that the school also sends out reminders to parents to dress their children warmly.

Sgt. Paul St. Amand of the Fairfield Police Department said crime tends to decrease in extreme cold because people are less likely to be out of their homes.

Capt. Rick Stubbert of the Oakland Police Department said he sees a shift in crime patterns.

“There’s less foot traffic, less criminal mischief, less car burglaries,” said Stubbert. “On the flip side, you might see a little more domestic violence crime and things like that because people are penned up.”

Stubbert said that officers are mindful of those who appear to be at risk.

“If we see a pedestrian late at night who appears to be intoxicated, we’ll try to get him where he’s going, because it doesn’t take long for hypothermia to take effect at these temperatures,” Stubbert said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com