COLUMBIA – The next few days could see some serious winter weather — snow, strong winds and more dangerously cold temperatures.
The bitter cold plaguing Columbia is expected to turn into heavy snowfall Wednesday, followed by strong winds and then below-zero temperatures again through the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.
Snow is expected to begin falling this afternoon, with an accumulation of 2 to 5 inches by Thursday morning.
On top of that, winds gusting to 29 mph are predicted Wednesday.
The National Weather Service forecasts snow continuing into Thursday with widespread blowing snow. Gusts up to 33 mph are anticipated as temperatures start to drop during the day.
Those low temperatures could reach dangerous levels. The wind chill will likely hit below zero by Thursday afternoon and get worse on Thursday night.
The wind chill factor Thursday night could drop to minus 25 degrees, said Butch Dye, a meteorological technician for the National Weather Service in St. Louis.
“Those are dangerous temperatures. Frostbite is possible,” he said.
According to the National Weather Service, a wind chill below minus 20 can cause frostbite within 30 minutes of exposure. A wind chill of minus 30 is considered life threatening.
The brutal temperatures are prompting downtown churches to provide shelter for Columbia's homeless population.
The Missouri United Methodist Church planned to put cots in a wing of the church beginning Tuesday night. A mass e-mail was sent to church members asking volunteers to come and stay the night, Senior Pastor Jim Bryan said.
The response was "phenomenal," he said. He received at least 75 replies from volunteers willing to "take on this extraordinary task" as the church converted its gym into a makeshift shelter.
The church will be open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The Red Cross agreed to provide 25 cots, blankets and pillows.
Alcohol, drugs, tobacco and fights will not be tolerated, Bryan said. He has stationed at least two adult male volunteers in the gym to keep things organized and safe.
"We're going to take it as it comes," he said. "This is a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants type of operation."
The Columbia Police Department and other agencies that help the homeless have been informed about the church's plans in order to notify those seeking shelter.
City officials estimate that Columbia has a homeless population of 372, and existing shelters have beds for about 70.
Other churches in the downtown area, including Calvary Episcopal, First Christian and First Baptist have showed interest in helping and possibly taking over the shelter responsibilities if the cold weather persists into next week, Bryan said.
The number of those seeking shelter hasn't increased dramatically since the weather worsened, according to the Salvation Army Harbor House and Voluntary Action Center.
"There's been a bit of an increase, but we haven't had to turn anyone away," said Maj. Kendall Mathews, the Salvation Army’s regional coordinator for Columbia and Jefferson City.
Columbia Public Schools is also watching weather patterns to determine a course of action.
Superintendent Chris Belcher said a decision to close school would be made by 5:30 a.m. each day and a decision to dismiss early would be made by 10 a.m.
He urged parents to be mindful of a child’s safety and evaluate whether a teen should drive to school or a child should walk. He asked them to prepare for the possibility of early dismissal.
“It's ultimately up to the parents when deciding whether or not to send their child to school that day,” he said.
Columbia Catholic School has a similar policy.
“We have an automated system that notifies parents in the event of a school closing or early dismissal,” Principal Linda Garner said.
Columbia/Boone County Office of Emergency Management announced a weather advisory asking all residents to practice extreme caution outdoors.
"In addition to considerable amounts of snow, we are likely to experience temperatures that are not only uncomfortable, but life-threatening,” Director Zim Schwartze said. "Drivers should use extreme caution when traveling Wednesday afternoon and evening, when the heaviest snowfall is expected to occur.”
Awareness and preparation seem to be key.
John Mruzik, a doctor at Boone Convenient Care, said symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, shaking, teeth chattering, confusion and the loss of the ability to move hands and feet.
Frostbite can occur after a few minutes of exposure to sub-degree weather, he said. Frostbite destroys cells and excessive rubbing of the tissue will make the consequences worse.
Warm — not hot — water on the skin is effective.
Before going outside in extreme temperatures, put on adequate clothing, alert an emergency contact and don't drink alcohol or smoke tobacco, Mruzik said.
If driving becomes dangerous, find shelter for the night rather than sleeping on the road where the cold and drifting snow become hazardous.
Temperatures are predicted to ease toward the middle of next week.