Devon Nocerini helps Noel Forgette jump-start his truck Monday in Marinette. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Devon Nocerini helps Noel Forgette jump-start his truck Monday in Marinette. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
MENOMINEE - Sub-zero temperatures and bitter cold windchills combined with a shortage of propane has added up to a state of emergency in Wisconsin. Some propane is selling for $7 a gallon and it's hitting the people who can least-afford it the hardest.

"Up until last Wednesday, I had no idea we had a company in Marinette County that was unable to meet the demand of its customers. It caught us all by surprise," said Marinette County Emergency Management Director Eric Burmeister.

The shortage of propane has been caused by unusually cold temperatures, the temporary closing of a major pipeline for maintenance and by a wet fall which increased the demand for drying grain.

On Monday, Gov. Scott Walker announced the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority would set aside $8 million to back loans propane dealers take out to purchase gas. He also said the state would release another $8.5 million to help low-income consumers pay for propane. Walker also said he planned to ask for federal reviews of propane prices and how exports have affected domestic supplies.

According to information supplied by Burmeister, the price of propane at the terminals jumped to $5 per gallon Friday, not including transportation or retail profit margin. With a semi load of propane costing $50,000, propane companies have had to tighten credit terms for their customers, putting everybody in a tight spot.

Burmeister said Larsen Cooperative has been able to pick up some of the slack created when Consumers Gas ran out. He said people who applied for a new shipment of propane Monday, who were not regular Larsen customers, were asked to sign an application form but that it was not a contract for future services.

Even with some relief, there's no telling for sure how long it will be before supplies get back to normal. That's why the Red Cross has shelter trailers on standby in the event they're needed for residents without heat. Crivitz and Iron Mountain, Mich., have been identified as two target areas because of where the greatest shortage of propane exists.

Several smaller towns from Crivitz north have expressed an interest in using their facilities for use as warming centers during the day. Burmeister held a teleconference with officials in 13 northern counties late Monday to talk about the needs of residents.

Meanwhile, the propane shortage could have an indirect affect on other utilities such as Wisconsin Public Service.

"We have no idea of what this whole propane situation will mean to the cost of natural gas," said Jenny Short, WPS community relations leader. "We don't believe, as of right now, there is any reason to worry about our gas supply."

Short said it's possible electric customers will look for different solutions for heating their homes such as using space heaters. Short said WPS is quick to remind customers not to use propane grills indoors and that certain types of space heaters require ventilation. She urged customers to follow the manufacturers instructions.

The spike in propane prices is also making natural gas customers wonder about the cost of their fuel. Short said WPS rates aren't changing and that the company passes the cost of gas onto its customers.

"Where we make our money is on the distribution," she explained. "We pass along the cost, what our cost is for us is what our customers pay, so that may change. Along with that of course the temperatures are very cold, so customers are going to be using more gas. Because of that bills will go up."

As far as the supply of electrical power, Short said WPS is in pretty good shape and that there is an adequate supply. "But just like everything else, these cold temperatures test everything, including our electric distribution systems," she said. "The weather puts a strain on everything."

Customers having difficulty keeping up with their payments should make arrangement with WPS. Short said the last thing the company wants is for customers to come out of the winter in a deep financial hole. The winter moratorium on service shut-off expires April 15.

Short also asked residents to keep their meters clear of ice and snow because the units need airflow to operate properly and to avoid a service interruption.
EagleHerald staff writer

MENOMINEE - Many local residents woke up Monday morning with dreams of crawling back into their nice warm beds. Temperatures dipped to minus 8 around 7 a.m. with wind-chills reaching minus 22. Today promises to be twice as cold, so area schools got a jump start on cancellations.

"Tomorrow (Tuesday) is going to be quite nasty the way it looks," said Marinette School Superintendent Tim Baneck. Baneck and other school leaders all decided by mid-afternoon that Tuesday would become another "snow day".

Menominee schools were also off Monday. Although the high school has had problems with the boilers keeping classrooms heated, that wasn't what prompted calling off classes. Superintendent Mike Cattani said it was simply the wind-chill.

Many students and parents were surprised Monday when they learned Marinette had school but Menominee didn't. Baneck explained he based his decision on the actual temperature and the actual wind speed at the time students go to school. "It's not as bad as was originally forecast," he said. "It is cold, no doubt about that, but we do live in northern Wisconsin so we have to accept that somewhat. But then, you again have to draw the line. At what point does it become dangerous for the kids?"

Baneck said he felt it was safe for the kids to go in because the winds were calm. However, with all forecasts for Tuesday pointing to sub-zero temperatures and brisk winds, classes were canceled.

Cold weather also gives furnaces a major workout and so it should come as no surprise that repair services are doing a booming business. Alice Janquart of Nerat Plumbing and Heating in Menominee said the phone there has been ringing off the hook.

"We haven't stopped dealing with these issues since the first freeze-up," she said. "Typically, this time of year it's normal, because we do get below-zero weather almost always after Christmas. It's a lingering, longer problem this year because of the extreme temperatures."

Janquart said, although it's common for people to want to conserve energy and turn their furnaces down, doing so can lead to other problems.

"Many people don't realize that you should hike the temperature on your thermostat up a little more so that warm air can get down into the basement," she said, adding that basements are normally about 50 degrees but when the outside temperature dips to below zero for an extended time basements get colder and homeowners run the risk of developing frozen pipes.

"A lot of people have issues with vents in their furnaces, if it gets iced up, your furnace will stop," she said. "Your furnace works hard so you have to make sure you replace your filters. If your furnace is gasping for air, it makes it work harder and some of the safeties will go off and it will turn your furnace off and you won't have any heat and without any heat you have broken water lines. It's kind of a domino effect."