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Storm Alert Reopens Shelter for Homeless

Times Staff Writer

With a ferocious winter storm bearing down on Southern California, San Diego City Manager John Lockwood reopened the city’s emergency shelter for the homeless at Balboa Park’s Municipal Gymnasium for at least Tuesday night and tonight.

The late-afternoon decision sent city officials scrambling to find equipment and volunteers needed to re-establish the facility they closed Monday when temperatures crept above the emergency range. More than 450 homeless people stayed in the gym Saturday and Sunday nights as Arctic air chilled the county.

The Tuesday night forecast, which called for rain and temperatures between 41 and 46 degrees downtown, does not constitute a life-threatening situation as defined by the city’s new housing emergency policy, which was put to the test for the first time last weekend.

The city’s guidelines call for opening the shelter when temperatures drop to 35 degrees or 40 degrees with rain, but Lockwood said that conditions will be severe enough that he was persuaded to reopen the shelter.

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Break-Even Point

“We’re right at the break-even point as far as whether we open or close,” Lockwood said. “We don’t know how fast the wind is going to blow, so we’re going to err on the side of caution.”

The National Weather Service predicted that a major storm packing high winds and large amounts of precipitation would hit the county Tuesday night and continue most of today.

The storm, which will cause near-blizzard conditions in the mountains, will drop 8 to 12 inches of snow in elevations above 3,500 feet, 2 to 4 inches of rain in inland areas and 1 to 2 inches of rain along the coast, said forecaster Grady Svoboda.

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Winds of 20 to 40 m.p.h. were expected to whip through the county Tuesday night and tonight, accompanying temperatures that could drop to 38 to 45 degrees in inland valleys.

Svoboda urged people not to travel through the mountains. “You’re going to have near-blizzard conditions,” he said. “It’s not safe to travel.”

Heavy Surf

The weather service also issued a high surf advisory, predicting that waves averaging 8 feet--with occasional sets as high as 12 feet--will begin to pound beaches late this morning and continue Thursday. Though the heavy surf is expected to begin subsiding Thursday night, a high tide of 6.5 feet at 6:30 a.m. Friday combined with the ocean conditions means that coastal property owners should take precautions to protect exposed structures, Svoboda said.

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Swimming, surfing and watching the surf from exposed rocks or structures is “extremely dangerous,” he said.

The wet weather follows a cold snap that generated a record demand for both electricity and natural gas on Monday and Tuesday, according to San Diego Gas & Electric.

SDG&E;'s commercial, industrial and residential customers used a record 453.6 million cubic feet of natural gas during the 24-hour period ended at 6 a.m. on Tuesday. The previous record, 448.8 million cubic feet, came during the 24-hour period that ended at 6 a.m. last Jan. 15.

Gas Use Zoomed

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Residential customers usually use about 300 cubic feet of natural gas daily to heat homes during winter. That zoomed to about 570 cubic feet on Monday and Tuesday.

Electricity use also rose to a winter record at 6 p.m. on Monday, when demand peaked at 2,231 megawatts. The previous winter mark was set during a cold wave in February, 1986, when electric demand reached 2,119 megawatts.

The average daily electricity peak during the winter is 1,997 megawatts, SDG&E; spokeswoman Karen Duncan said. One megawatt of electrical power serves about 1,000 customers, she said.

“There is no supply problem,” Duncan said. “However, we do recommend that folks use their energy wisely in order to prevent any (supply) problems.”

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Others Also Ready

Because of the cold, the county’s two other emergency facilities for the homeless were prepared to stay open again Tuesday night.

A shelter operated by the North County Interfaith Council in an Escondido Salvation Army building was set to accept the homeless for its fifth consecutive night. The St. Vincent de Paul Joan Kroc Center for the homeless, which has expanded its 300-bed facility by providing 130 extra beds in dining and meeting rooms since Saturday night, was also prepared to accept emergency residents Tuesday night.

Lockwood’s late afternoon decision to reopen the gym came after city officials spent the day checking weather forecasts, determining whether existing homeless shelters could handle the anticipated demand for housing and fielding calls from residents critical of the city’s decision to close the gym to the homeless Monday night.

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Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s office received 50 to 60 phone calls from people critical of Monday’s decision to shut the shelter because temperatures were expected to hit 40 degrees, said O’Connor’s spokesman, Paul Downey.

Call From Mayor

The decision also followed a mid-afternoon phone call from O’Connor, who is in New York for a hearing on San Diego’s America’s Cup court appeal, recommending that the shelter be opened again, Downey said.

While the decision is Lockwood’s to make, O’Connor “was forceful,” Downey said. “She said to pass along that the shelter should be open tonight given the severity of the storm.” Checks showed that all downtown shelters were filled to capacity, said Frank Landerville, project director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

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“It’s very clear from the operation of the mayor’s Christmas shelter last Christmas and the shelter the last two nights, that there are some 400 to 600 people in the downtown area who are within walking distance of a shelter and would come in if given the opportunity to do so,” Landerville said.

He praised the decision to re-open the shelter, saying that “what it means is that there will be 200 or 300 people who will be inside tonight. Obviously, it’s needed.”

Blankets and Pads

The gym was scheduled to open at 10 p.m. Tuesday, probably with blankets and pads instead of cots for its homeless residents, Lockwood said. It will remain open tonight and may remain if weather conditions later this week merit, said George Penn, assistant to the city manager.

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The Salvation Army was providing hot drinks, and it will serve food tonight, Penn said.


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