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How cold is too cold? Be prepared this winter season

Brian korthals/Daily Globe Blustery wind gusts wrestled with flags at Freedom Veterans Memorial Park Thursday in Worthington.1 / 2
Brian Korthals/Daily Globe A Minnesota Department of Transportation plow creates a large cloud as he clears Minnesota 266 Thursday afternoon north of Worthington.2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- Sure, the shivers and snow aren't fun, but extreme cold weather can cause more than just inconvenience. It can be dangerous, too.

Even local postal carriers were retreating from the snow-covered streets by late Thursday morning.

"The rural ones aren't having any luck at all and the city ones aren't really having any luck either. Nothing is scooped," said Lynel Hokeness, a supervisor at the Worthington Post Office, adding a reminder for folks to clear the space in front of their mailbox.

"The carriers are probably going to be coming off the streets soon because of the wind chills; we don't want anybody to get frost bit out there," said Worthington postmaster Howard Kor. He said there is no magic formula post offices use to determine if they should close; it's just dependent on conditions on each carrier's route.

"We basically leave it up to them to do what it takes to stay warm; stay out of the elements as much as they can, which is pretty hard as a mailman," Kor explained. He said every winter there are some routes, especially in rural areas, where mail cannot be delivered, but most routes are reachable.

"Visibility is the problem," asserted Wendell Wagner, a rural mail carrier.

"I was out in Homewood Hills and nobody had their boxes scooped out so I came back in," he said. "I'll go out later and make a second attempt. Just about every street I went down there were cars stuck in the street," said Wagner, who used his four-wheel drive pick-up truck for work Thursday.

To stay warm, Wagner said he dons insulated coveralls, hooded sweatshirts and insulated boots. "Staying dry is as important as staying warm," advised the mail carrier of 21 years. He said he could remember two times in his tenure that mail delivery was called off altogether. What were those days like?

"Like today," he said with a smile.

Wagner's advice to stay dry and warm should not be taken lightly. Worthington is on pace to break its 1996 record low for today's date of minus 20, with temperatures expected to reach minus 21 this evening. And with temperatures already dipping below zero and wind chills near minus 30 reported in Worthington Thursday, people are more at risk for cold-related health issues like hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia is diagnosed when a person's core body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

"When that starts happening some of the initial symptoms you'll see are shivering, heart rate increase, breathing increase," explained Dr. John Odom, a physician in the emergency room at Sanford Regional Hospital Worthington. "As it progresses you might start getting mental changes: slurred speech, confusion, clumsiness."

He said frostbite, too, occurs in stages.

"Almost all frostbite is exposure-related, and again there are signs depending on severity," Odom said. Initially, people will feel decreased sensation in the affected area, followed by swelling and possible blister formation before the skin turns white and the area feels numb.

He said damage is determined by both the length and severity of the exposure.

"If the skin was completely exposed and it was minus 20 (degrees) and wet," he said, that would likely cause more damage than exposed dry skin in say, 5 degree weather.

"Maybe up to half an hour, those are pretty low risk situations," he said. "As you start getting above an hour with those kinds of symptoms it becomes much more important to be assessed (by a physician)."

He said in this type of weather, doctors see a few patients per week with cold-related injuries, and a majority of those stem from motor vehicle accidents.

"They had a rollover or have been stranded or somehow been exposed in a situation they didn't prepare for," he said. "Prevention is the key."

He advocated packing a travel kit in the vehicle. According to The Weather Channel Web site, such kits should include a spare tire and tools, shovel, jumper cables, working flashlight with batteries, reflective triangles, a first-aid kit, windshield cleaner, ice scraper, snow brush and nonperishable snacks.

"We fall into that adolescent thinking that it can't happen to me," he said. "You live in Minnesota; the chance of something bad happening is relatively high."