Winter blasts into area with early start

Shelters helping needy, farmers with crops try to curb damaging toll

It came, as so many unwelcome guests do, unexpectedly. And it’s not leaving, not soon enough.

Winter is here. Forget what the calendar says, that the season doesn’t officially begin until Dec. 21. Our temperatures the past few days have been 20 to 25 degrees lower than average for this time of year. The sub-freezing weather, say the forecasters, is likely to linger until midweek.

This year’s cruel temperatures are an icy reminder that we are not far removed from cave-dwellers who sat by fires and feared the howling weather just outside. They weren’t immune from the cold, and neither are we.

Just ask the guy living in a makeshift tent in Norcross; the Covington farmer fretting that his strawberries might not see spring; or the people shuffling in the dark outside an Atlanta shelter, waiting for the privilege of sleeping on a tiled floor.

Life on the outside

Raymond Crimson reached for some pine straw. He dropped it on dormant coals from the previous night’s fire, leaned and blew. A yellow tendril of flame flickered out of the gray ash. In moments, the unemployed truck driver had a fine little fire blazing inside a ring of rocks at his home in the woods.

Six months ago, Crimson moved out of his Norcross home to a small slice of woodland behind a warehouse near Jimmy Carter Boulevard. He did it voluntarily, Crimson said. “I had to work out some things in my head.”

He brought a roll of plastic for shelter and two cats for company. On warm nights early on, he hung a battery-powered radio from the branch of a tree and listened to music.

More recently, he has spent the night wrapped in blankets, pulled his cats close and waited inside his plastic tent for the morning sun. He keeps a hooded sweatshirt on his head and sleeps in his jeans.

A native of Ohio, Crimson said he’s accustomed to cold weather. “The worst part is getting up, putting on your boots,” said Crimson, 48, who does some part-time yard work. “That’s cold.”

Afternoons, he stokes his fire, smokes a Pall Mall and ponders the future. “I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to go with the rest of my life.”

That might start with returning home soon, perhaps even today, he said. The cats will come, too.

Shivering for her kids

Two miles away, Lisbeth Damian stepped around the corner of the Norcross Cooperative Ministries building, escaping the wind. She took a small sip from a cup of coffee a friend brought to help the 22-year-old Doraville resident stay warm under a weak sun.

The nonprofit co-op, which offers housing, food and clothing to needy people, would begin handing out items at 6 p.m. Damian had arrived at noon.

By mid-afternoon, seven more adults had joined her. A preschool girl wrapped a mitten-clad hand around a pole and swung in tight circles, her long hair a black flash. The grown-ups, bulky in wool and fleece, stayed still.

Damian took another sip. “Yes, I am really cold,” she said. But a mother, she said, will endure a chill to feed her children. She has two — daughters 4 and 2.

Her husband, said Damian, recently got laid off from his construction job; cold weather forced his boss to cut his crew. The family is renting a room in a house. It’s cheap and warm, but doesn’t come with food.

“This cold, it is hard,” she said. “We try to stay the longest time inside.”

In the ministry building, Executive Director Shirley Cabe sighed. Last month they had served more than 1,100 families. Now, she said, with the change in temperature, people surely would lose power for non-payment, have their water turned off for the same reason, and go hungry. The nonprofit would be hard-pressed to help them all.

“Everyone’s situation just seems to get more intense when it gets colder,” she said.

Outside, the line had grown to a dozen. They had two hours still to wait.

Covering up crops

There’s city cold, then there’s country cold. The city variety can be sudden, a punch to the gut when you round a corner. The country version does its damage more slowly, settling quiet and heavy on everything. That was the cold facing Cory Mosser.

Wednesday afternoon, under a sky leaden and low, he stood on the edge of a tract just east of Covington, a skinny guy in muddy boots, jeans and a worn fleece jacket. The manager of an organic farm, he needed to cover up one more row of strawberries before night fell.

He and a co-worker, Daniel Guzman, unrolled white poly-plastic tarp. Small clouds bloomed in the air each time they exhaled. They stepped carefully past tiny plants that in early spring could yield fruit worth $6 a pound — about $9,000 worth of produce.

“It’s hard to get started in the morning,” said Mosser, who oversees growing operations at Burge Plantation, a privately owned hunting club and events facility. “Once you get moving, it gets easier.”

Mosser and Guzman moved fast, spreading the tarp over bent conduit forming the frame of the temporary shelters. The tarp rattled in the stillness. Mosser grunted as he shoveled dirt on the covering’s edge, securing it to the ground. The scree! of a hawk sounded in the woods.

In 10 minutes, they were done. Mosser and Guzman admired their work.

“We got fooled thinking winter would never come,” said Mosser. “But then it did.”

A Yankee perspective

Cold weather is fun, agreed Caleb and Kim Snyder, who would know.

The Snyders are natives of Buffalo, N.Y., a place whose epic snows are often the stuff of 6 o’clock newscasts. Wednesday night found the Snellville residents skating across an 80-foot-long ice oval at Park Tavern. The restaurant, adjacent to Piedmont Park, opened the rink last month.

On the ice, some skaters wobbled like toddlers not long out of the crib. Others whizzed past. Light-blue Japanese-style lanterns stretched across the ice cast everything in a cool glow. The bass lines of a Lady Gaga song boomed in the air.

“I thought Atlanta was going to be warmer,” said Caleb Snyder, 24, who wants to enroll in a university here. “I didn’t expect this.”

His wife, also 24, nodded. “It’s unusual,” said Kim Snyder, who works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “That’s what people have told us, anyway.”

Their advice for shivering Southerners?

“Uh, dress in layers?” offered Caleb Snyder.

Kim Snyder smiled. “Think of August,” she said.

Coming in from the cold

Stan Sawyer thought of a warm place to sleep. With nearly two dozen others, he stood outside the Red Shield shelter on Luckie Street in downtown Atlanta. The shelter, operated by the Salvation Army, opens to provide a place to spend the night whenever the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wednesday night, the temperature was about half that. Sawyer, a native Atlantan, waited his turn to check in. At 10:45 p.m. a Red Cross worker handed him a blanket, the sort movers use to wrap furniture. She directed him to a room where mats lay on a tiled floor. Sawyer, 56, chose a spot against a wall decorated with Christmas lights. He rolled himself in the blanket like a burrito, still wearing his dark jeans and jacket, a ski cap tight on his head.

Sawyer said he’s been on the streets since 2001. Most nights he’ll stay outside; he learned in the Army how to sleep outdoors, he said.

But some nights are tougher than any military basic training. He had walked nearly a mile in the cold and dark to the shelter, not far from the Georgia Aquarium.

“I know your body can take only so much stress and strain,” said Sawyer, cinching the blanket up to his chin. “I’ve got sense enough to come in from this cold.”

How we got the story

Staff writer Mark Davis grabbed a pad and pencils — pens, he discovered years ago, quickly freeze — and talked to people across metro Atlanta about the cold. In both city and suburb, Davis made a discovery. No matter who we are, or what we do, we are joined by this weather. It respects no one, and everyone must respect it.