Governor declares emergency as arctic system nears

Published 1:43 pm Thursday, January 7, 2010

A 68-year-old man has died of hypothermia in east Mississippi, the first death in the state blamed on dangerously cold weather as residents braced for even lower temperatures in the next few days.

Authorities confirmed the death Wednesday. Later Wednesday, Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency due to expectations of “extreme and prolonged subfreezing temperatures.”

Billy Joe Fuller’s body was found Tuesday on the floor of his home in the Zero community, Lauderdale County Coroner Clayton Cobler said Wednesday.

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There were two butane gas heaters turned on inside Fuller’s wood-frame house where he lived alone but the tank outside was empty, Cobler said. The preliminary cause of death is being ruled as hypothermia.

“The heaters were going and it just ran out of gas,” Cobler said. “It looks like once hypothermia set in, he got confused, took off his clothes and laid on the floor.”

Fuller is one of several people across the South whose deaths have been blamed on the winter weather as an arctic mass settled over the region this week.

Temperatures could drop as low as zero by this weekend in extreme northeast Mississippi.

Barbour said the weather could lead to shortages for heating fuels and increase fire risks as people try to stay warm with alternative heating devices.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch for portions of east and north central Mississippi on Wednesday and a winter weather advisory for other parts of the state.

Meteorologist Ariel Cohen said north Mississippi could see accumulations of as much as 2 inches of snow Thursday. Snow, sleet and freezing rain were expected in central Mississippi with smaller chances of frozen precipitation farther south.

The conditions could lead to hazardous driving conditions and school closings in parts of the state. The decision to close schools is made on the district level, said Pete Smith, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Education.

“Once they make that decision, we’ve asked them to contact the department so we can post it on the Web site,” Smith said. “We’ll be updating the Web site as we get information from the districts.”

The Mississippi Department of Transportation is preparing for ice on bridges and other hazardous conditions with dozens of workers and equipment on standby. Shelters for the homeless and older residents without adequate heating have opened across the state.

Temperatures are expected to plummet Thursday night, perhaps dipping as low as 10 degrees in north Mississippi and to the mid- to upper-teens farther south.

It will continue to get colder Friday and by Saturday night the mercury could go as low as 0 degrees in far northeast Mississippi, Cohen said. Temperatures could range from the lower teens in the central portion of the state to mid-teens in the south.

“Wind chills will be below zero in the north,” Cohen said. “This is potentially deadly cold air.”

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