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On a cold Christmas Eve, Tampa Bay shelters provide warmth

Hundreds find places to sleep as power companies and Tampa International Airport brace for complications caused by a winter blast.
People in need of a warm place to sleep gather their belongings to enter the Hillsborough County cold weather Shelter hosted by the Hyde Park Methodist Church on Friday in Tampa.
People in need of a warm place to sleep gather their belongings to enter the Hillsborough County cold weather Shelter hosted by the Hyde Park Methodist Church on Friday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2022|Updated Dec. 24, 2022

On this weekend of cold nights and tight spaces, Don Aiken found meaning in the season, with its age-old story of a family turned away at the inn and finally finding makeshift housing for the night.

At Tampa’s Hyde Park United Methodist Church, where Aiken is a longtime volunteer, 80 people sought protection from the cold Friday night, bedding down in the church’s sanctuary. With holiday events planned for that space, the timing was awkward. But volunteers were managing nicely.

“It’s unusual for us to have a cold snap like this that will probably last four nights in a row, but it is also Christmas Eve and we have four services today,” said Aiken, a retired Navy veteran who has run the church’s cold shelter operation for the last decade.

Related: Tampa Bay area sees thousands of power outages as temperatures drop

In the midst of a holiday season with lots of people traveling, he said he was stunned to find that he had more volunteers than he needed, with people dropping off food and blankets and spending the night at the church to help monitor operations.

The Tampa Bay area is expected to see one of its three coldest Christmas days on record. But by next week, temperatures are expected to return to the 70s.

Don Aiken helps people in need of a warm place to sleep gather their belongings to enter the Hillsborough County cold weather shelter hosted by the Hyde Park Methodist Church on Friday in Tampa.
Don Aiken helps people in need of a warm place to sleep gather their belongings to enter the Hillsborough County cold weather shelter hosted by the Hyde Park Methodist Church on Friday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“It’s such an integral part of the Christmas service, because we tell a story of a family and there was no room for them in the inn, and they needed shelter and so it’s our opportunity to give back,” said Vicki Walker, the minister of missions and outreach at Hyde Park United Methodist.

Two hundred adults and 45 children stayed in cold weather shelters Friday night in Hillsborough County, said the county’s community relations coordinator Julie Watkinson. Administrators expected even more on Saturday night as the cold weather continues, she said.

The shelters will remain available through Sunday night.

More than 330 people stayed in Pinellas County shelters on Friday night, said Monika Alesnik, CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas.

Many areas of Florida were at or below freezing Saturday morning, with wind chills as low as the teens and more cold weather expected on Christmas Day.

As people cranked up their heaters, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. reported more than 3,000 power outages in the Tampa Bay area early Saturday. At one point, Duke counted more than 8,000 customers without power statewide. The numbers fluctuated up and down as additional reports came in and utility crews made repairs.

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Poinsettia plants line the stage for Christmas service in a fellowship hall at Hyde Park Methodist Church in Tampa, while a cot is set up nearby for the cold weather shelter the church plans to host through Monday night.
Poinsettia plants line the stage for Christmas service in a fellowship hall at Hyde Park Methodist Church in Tampa, while a cot is set up nearby for the cold weather shelter the church plans to host through Monday night. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Outside Florida, a massive winter storm battered the country with frigid temperatures, high winds and heavy snow, leaving at least nine people dead and wrecking holiday plans from coast to coast.

As of midday Saturday, Tampa International Airport reported that 58 flights had been canceled and 145 delayed because of the rough weather around the country, an airport spokesperson said. It affected a third of air travelers through the airport and nearly half of all flights.

Passengers go through security gates to ride the tram to their gate at Tampa International Airport on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Tampa.
Passengers go through security gates to ride the tram to their gate at Tampa International Airport on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Adam Bouchard, vice president of operations at the airport, said the weather is improving so flight delays appear to be declining, though he expected Sunday to be a busier Christmas Day than usual with people making up for cancellations.

”We believe the worst of it is over unless some airlines surprise us by getting very far behind in catching up,” Bouchard said Saturday. “But the weather is improving and we expect to be back on solid footing by tomorrow.”

Florida is the primary supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables for the rest of the country during the winter, and growers were harvesting as much of their crops as possible ahead of the cold front, according to The Associated Press. In Central Florida, where blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are grown, growers used overhead irrigation to spray a protective coat of ice around the fruit.

Passengers look at a board to check flight statuses at Tampa International Airport on Friday. Nearly 50% of flights were impacted by the foul weather on Friday. There were 58 flights canceled and 145 delays on Saturday, affecting about a third of the airport's travelers.
Passengers look at a board to check flight statuses at Tampa International Airport on Friday. Nearly 50% of flights were impacted by the foul weather on Friday. There were 58 flights canceled and 145 delays on Saturday, affecting about a third of the airport's travelers. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

To find a cold weather shelter in Pinellas County, visit PinellasHomeless.org/coldnightshelters.

In Hillsborough County, locations can be found at bit.ly/3vfGQLM.

To make sheltering arrangements in Pasco County, residents should call the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County at 727-842-8605, and select the “cold weather sheltering” option, Extension 2.

Hernando County is coordinating with Jericho Road Ministries to provide shelters. Locations can be found at hernandocounty.us.