Update (12:30 p.m.): Columbia Gas crews have restored service to 90 percent of customers.
Update (7:20 a.m.): Columbia Gas crews worked through the night, and service has been restored to about 85 percent of customers, according to Tom Kelley, director of the Lorain County Office of Emergency Management. Columbia Gas expects remaining service to be restored today.
By Lisa Roberson and Evan Goodenow
Shelly Mitchell relaxed under an electric blanket about 9 p.m. Monday when a neighbor called, asking her something she did not want to hear with it 10 degrees below zero outside.
“Do you have heat? Because we don’t.” the neighbor asked.
The thermostat in Mitchell’s Mill Stream Circle home in Elyria read 64 degrees. At 9 a. m. Tuesday, it had dropped to 50.
“And that’s with four space heaters running,”said Mitchell, 47.
Seeing your breath in your home is something no one wants on the coldest day the region has experienced in 20 years. But for more than 2,000 residents in southern Elyria, North Ridgeville and Eaton Township, that was the case due to a natural gas outage.
About 2,200 Columbia Gas customers were affected, according to Columbia spokesman Ray Frank. The outage began about 8 to 9 p.m. Monday and continued Tuesday night.
“It wasn’t too bad sleeping, but getting out of bed was a real problem,” said Julie Thompson of Songbird Street in Elyria.
As she walked around her home, Thompson’s breath formed clouds. She first noticed the temperature in her home dropping around 6 p.m. Monday.
“It couldn’t have picked a (worse) time,” Thompson said. “It’s freezing.”
Frank said the unusual outage was caused by an operations problem with a supplier. It caused pressure to drop in the distribution lines and gas volume to go down as well.
Frank described gas transmission as “extremely complex” and said the outage was “very unusual.” “Natural gas pipelines are one of the safest forms of energy out there and underground pipelines are generally well safeguarded from extreme weather shifts,” he said.
Frank said he didn’t know if the severe cold caused the outage or contributed to it.
“We’re just a distribution company,” he said. “We can’t really speak to the transmission end of the business without having real specific information and that we don’t have.”
Columbia re-pressured its lines between 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Tuesday, Frank said. Some 200 Columbia workers or contractors were involved in restoration.
Workers then went house to house Tuesday checking lines before service could be restored. At 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Frank said he didn’t know how many customers had service restored.
He said lists carried by crew members to homes had to be verified to determine how many homes were empty and how many had service restored.
“It’s a lot more detailed and labor-intensive than you might think,” he said. “It’s not just driving around flipping a switch and counting how many lights you see.”
Law enforcement was not immune, either. According to Sgt. Timmothy Hoffman of the Ohio Highway Patrol, the patrol’s Elyria post had not had its gas restored as of Tuesday night.
The wait frustrated Julie Kramer. She said her parents, Reba Staffield, 73, and Russell Staffield, 78, still didn’t have service restored at their home in the 200 block of Westminster Way in the Village of Fieldstone Lakes housing complex off Bender Road as of 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Reba Staffield, who Kramer said has been staying with her since the outage, suffers from a severe illness and needs medical equipment in her home.
Kramer said her father has been waiting at the home for crews using a stove and space heaters for warmth. Kramer said at one point crews were in a neighbor’s driveway but said they didn’t have a work order to restore service at her father’s home. Kramer said she called Columbia at (800) 344-4077 numerous times about her parents’ situation.
“They just keep giving us the runaround,” Kramer said. “It’s almost like they tell us what we want to hear to get us off the phone.”
The waiting game had many asking how cold is too cold to stay at home.
“We don’t want to leave the house and leave the space heaters running, and we don’t want to turn off the space heaters because the pipes could freeze,” Mitchell said. “It would have to be pretty cold for us to leave our house, leave our dogs.”
An emergency shelter at St. Mary Parish Hall, 320 Middle Ave., was opened in response to the frigid weather. No Columbia customers used it as of 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to Bruce Shade, assistant safety service director.
“I think they are just hunkering down and making do, but residents really (didn’t) have to do that,” Shade said.
Shade said nine people ate at the shelter Monday and four stayed overnight, including a stranded traveler who could not get a bus or train to take her on the next leg of her journey.
Four people were staying overnight Tuesday.
Shade said the shelter is expected to close today.