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Freeze watch opens shelter

With an ear-numbing cold front sweeping in from the north tonight, Hernando County officials plan to open a shelter to protect vulnerable residents from the bitter weather.

The New Beginning Life Center at 3350 Commercial Way is to open its doors at 6 p.m. Plans call for keeping the shelter open until 8 a.m. Saturday. However, organizers will shut down the operation at midnight tonight if no one comes seeking shelter.

It is the first time the county has opened a cold weather shelter this winter. The opening also marks the first time for a recently approved plan between area charity groups and government officials to provide better shelter service to the community.

Volunteers from Helping Hands United, a group sponsored by St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, and from New Beginnings are to staff the shelter, county social services director Jean Rags said. Cots, blankets and food will be available, she said.

Rags said the shelter is open to the homeless, those without heat and those in difficult financial circumstances who may be wary of inflated energy bills. Any in need of shelter from the cold, particularly the elderly and those with respiratory problems, are urged to come, Rags said.

"It was implemented," she said of the shelter, "to protect people in Hernando County from the cold under any circumstances."

According to the National Weather Service, cold, dry air will descend on the region tonight. In Hernando County, temperatures are expected to fall steadily after sunset Friday, reaching freezing between 1 and 3 a.m. Saturday.

Temperatures are expected to reach as low as the upper 20s to near 30 just before sunrise Saturday. The weather service has issued a freeze watch that is in effect from late tonight into Saturday morning.

_ Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.

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