The big news of the week continued to be the Polar Vortex and a historic winter storm that swept across the United States causing ice, snow in and very frigid record-breaking temperatures across the Midwest.
Ice storms and snow were sweeping across Texas — which led to power outages for much of the state — Oklahoma was seeing historic amounts of snow and the center of the United States was seeing record-breaking temperatures. According to the National Weather Service, Kansas was showing the coldest temperatures in the country early week.
Temperatures in downtown Hiawatha on Tuesday morning were reading -16 degrees F shortly before 8 a.m as residents were starting to get out and about to start their day. Combined with wind chills — the “real-feel” temperature was around -30 degrees Tuesday morning. This was the lowest temperature for Northeast Kansas since December of 1989 and the lowest reading on the temperature gauge since the Polar Vortex settled in early last week.
The good news is the vortex was blowing out of the area even starting later Tuesday and the high on Wednesday was projected to be around 18-20 degrees F and by the end of the week closer to 30 degrees F.
According to the National Weather Service, the term “vortex” refers to the counter-clockwise flow of air that helps keep the colder air near the Poles. Many times during winter in the northern hemisphere, the polar vortex will expand, sending cold air southward with the jet stream. This occurs fairly regularly during wintertime and is often associated with large outbreaks of Arctic air in the United States.
This Polar Vortex started it’s downward progression a few weeks ago and about 10 days ago settled over the central United States.
The sub-zero temperatures led to wide-sweeping school closings throughout Kansas, along with cancellations of school activities and other services as advisories were issues concerning the dangers of being exposed to the frigid temperatures and wind chills.
In addition, some schools and businesses closed specifically to conserve energy, as was advised by Evergy.
Evergy issued an emergency notice on Monday, advising of “rolling blackouts” throughout the area in an effort to conserve energy. By the end of the day, nearly 60,000 Evergy customers had seen minimized blackouts of anywhere from 30-60 minutes.
According to a news release from Evergy, the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) had issued energy alerts as extended cold temperatures continue to strain the power grid. These alerts were continued Tuesday and additional rolling blackouts were planned for that day — this time 30-90 minutes — and possibly until more seasonable temperatures returned later this week. By 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Evergy announced the outages were paused for the day and power should be returning for anyone impacted. Blackouts were potentially on tap again for Wednesday.
According to the news release, Evergy has reduced electricity use at Evergy facilities, implemented cold-weather procedures, and adapted operations at its power plants to keep equipment working and fuel available to generate electricity for customers.
This concern did not just affect Kansas. Evergy is a member of the SPPl, which coordinates the regional transmission grid and wholesale energy markets for a 17-state region across the central United States, including Kansas and Missouri. The SPP monitors power flow through its footprint and coordinates regional response in emergency situations.
In addition to the SPP call for reductions, its peers in Texas and the upper Midwest are also facing electricity shortages and are asking customers to conserve.
Tips to conserve energy include reducing the setting on your thermostat to 65-68 degrees, keeping blinds closed to keep warmth in, do not run additional space heaters or appliances — such as washers and dryers — that take more energy. It’s also advised to use low-cooking temperature methods that take less energy.
Evergy advised anyone impacted by an emergency electricity reduction does not need to report the outage. Rather, check Evergy’s outage map and www.evergy.com/outageinfo for more information. All customers should be prepared for the potential for these periodic outages. Anyone experiencing an outage that lasts longer than an hour, report your outage at www.evergy.com or call 888-544-4852 or 800-544-4857, for Kansas Central customers.
The Hiawatha School Board met in special session Tuesday morning and voted to move forward on elementary school parking lot and driving lane improvements, scheduled for Summer 2021.
These improvements include a separate exit, a revised driving lane that will no longer be two-way and islands and parking spaces for parked cars.
At the last couple of regular monthly meetings, a few board members expressed concern over the flow of traffic at the elementary and some said they had been contacted by numerous parents with concern.
The current entry drive comes off of Miami Street on the east edge of the property and offers two lanes — one for circling around for drop offs in front of the schools and around the flagpole, then the other flows the traffic away from in front of the school. Drivers can also currently continue past the flagpole and enter the parking lot, then leave by way of another exit on the east side of the parking lot that flows back into the “out” lane.
The school recently posted signs that specified “right turns only” out of the exit lane to mitigate the flow of traffic, however there are still issues with cars getting backed up.
The buses have their own lane along Miami Street and do not have to travel through the drive, something that had been added as the city completed the Miami Street replacement project a few years ago.
After discussions about some potential alternatives to improve the flow of traffic, board members asked District Maintenance Director Chris Morey to come up with a drawing that detailed a way staff and parents could enter the parking lot without having to circle through the drive and get caught up in the flow of traffic from parents dropping off students. In addition, board members wanted to explore the possibilities of adding an additional exit from the parking lot.
After getting input from board member Ian Schuetz, Superintendent Lonnie Moser and Principal Paul Carver, Morey presented a drawing at Tuesday morning’s meeting that offered all of those choices.
The proposal was for the drive to be turned back into a one-lane one-way drive once again — reverting back to how it used to be. The drive would circle around the flagpole to enter the south end of the parking lot and the flow of traffic will continue to the east where an exit will be created that flows traffic out onto Miami Street. Left turns out onto Miami Street will not be allowed — as this will cause a back up of traffic if drivers are trying to exit the parking lot against the flow of traffic.
In addition, drivers can pull into the parking lot from the east side of the entrance drive, but cannot exit there any longer.
Morey said this exit will take up a small portion of the bus lane, but thought it would not impede the bus traffic too much. However traffic exiting the parking lot will have to be aware of buses pulling into their lane along Miami in the morning to drop off kids before 8 a.m. and also for pickup starting at 3:20 p.m. By 3:25 p.m. buses are usually pulling out and heading south along Sixth Street to circle around Iowa for pickups at the middle and high schools.
In addition, the plan is for the parking lot will offer islands between parking sections and marked parking stalls, along with a chip and seal surface. The islands will provide more safety for children walking toward the building from parked vehicles. In addition, there will be a platform at the west edge of the parking lot and a new crosswalk for children to wait to cross traffic to the school.
Moser said the school district may need help from the city to enforce the right turn only” protocol exiting the parking lot. Carver said since the sign has been installed the number of cars trying to turn left have decreased significantly.
The board voted 6-0 (board member Amy Kopp was absent) to approve a drawing of proposed changes to the parking lot and solicit bids with the following amendments to the drawing: the east side of the drive will change from one lane to two lanes. Traffic will exit from the parking lot right only on to Miami Street. Bid to include grading, electrical and concrete work needed to complete the proposed changes. The chip and seal surface will be completed following all other work by country crews.
The Hiawatha City Commission met Tuesday evening and approved several bids for services over the coming year, as well as for a handful of purchases.
After the bid process, the Commission voted to renew their current health insurance policies for the year. Despite a small increase, the medical and dental coverage through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas, as well as vision coverage through VSP, still fits within the annual budget. The city currently covers 100% of employee plans and 74.5% for spouses and dependents.
A bid from Nemaha Valley Motors was approved for the purchase of a 2021 Ram 2500 Tradesman for the Parks and Recreation Department. Nemaha Valley Motors presented the lone bid, and the Commission commented that they would like to see more local bids for city vehicles. Also approved was a bid from Pierce Heating and Cooling to replace the HPR furnace. The Pierce bid was a few thousand cheaper and featured a similar warranty as a competing bid from Koehn Cooling.
The Commission also voted to send a letter to KDHE regarding concerns over a poultry farm, to transfer unused 2020 capital expenditures to the Capital Improvement Fund, and a donation of one family pool pass for 2021 to the Brown County Extension Spotlight Auction, and three Splash Passes to the Hiawatha After-Prom. Also approved was a request from the fire department to apply for a Forestry Grant.
HPR Director Stacy Jasper discussed the progress on opening the Fisher Center, and said that she is hopeful to get regular programs up and running with safety modifications for the spring.
Water and Lights Superintendent Brad Scott discussed the city clock tower with the Commission. Scott is gathering bids for painting the clock face, and asked about switching the colors back to the original black clock face with white numbers and hands. The Commission was in consensus to switch back to the original color scheme.
In other business, the Commission approved the Consent Agenda, which included utility refunds of $318.45, a payment of $82,313.51 to Morrill Public Library for quarterly tax, a payment to Hiawatha Hotel LLC for 2020 Guest Tax in the amount of $57,024.24, and a payment to Mitra Development in the amount of $26,125.54.
Hiawatha City Commission meetings have been dominated in recent weeks by discussions of the city’s mask mandates and this week was no exception.
The group met this Monday, and heard from five local citizens regarding the city’s mask requirements, along with comments from commissioners and local healthcare representatives.
Former Hiawatha resident Jason Dvorak spoke of his experience with the CDC a year ago, after traveling to Europe. Dvorak stated that concerns over the state of Europe’s health concerns were exaggerated, but felt mistreated and exposed by the CDC upon his return. Dvorak said that he believes that local businesses should be able to decide for themselves how masks are handled, but did state his belief that whatever a business’s preferences are should be followed. Dvorak was joined in speaking to the commission by his daughter Jocelyn, who voiced her concern that high school students were not being heard in their concerns about mask requirements. Jocelyn noted the lack of masks in organized sports and in restaurants as proof that mandates were being enforced based on agenda.
Richard Schilling was on hand, as well, and shared his belief that rights are granted by God, while also sharing that he believes that Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon. Schilling asked the commission to keep an open mind in considering the opinions expressed by citizens. Stuart Aller returned to the commission, sharing that his family had seen their business discontinued by a local company who disagreed with his opinions at the previous meeting. Aller spoke of freedom of speech, and expressed his dismay that his stance on the issue has affected his family.
Jim Robidoux spoke in support of the mask mandate. Robidoux stated his belief that many of the arguments being made for disbanding the mask mandate fail to recognize individuals’ responsibility to the greater good of a community.
Mayor Bill Collins requested to hear from local healthcare representatives, introducing Hiawatha Community Hospital CEO John Broberg. At that point, a user identifying themselves as Chris Kroll, who spoke in favor of removing the mask mandate at the last meeting, made a comment on the Zoom Chat section made the remark, “Here comes the ‘sCiEnCe’.”
Broberg shared a graph showing the peak of Covid-19 activity in Brown County, and the decline after local mask mandates. The HCH leader shared concerns over the three new variants of the Coronavirus that have surfaced, including at least one variant that is present in Kansas. Broberg shared that by the end of the week over 700 initial doses of vaccines will have been administered in Brown County, and that it has been suggested that mask mandates not be lifted until 75 percent of residents have been vaccinated. Robin Downard with the Brown County Health Department mirrored Broberg’s concerns over new variants, and both asked to maintain the mask order and re-evaluate in two months.
Commissioner Becky Shamburg said she is comfortable with the information presented by the healthcare professionals, and is in favor of keeping the mandate in place. Commissioner Evans Woehlecke shared that he has seen up close the effects of Covid deaths, and wants to do all we can as a community to beat the virus. Commissioner Dave Middendorf stated that he has been approached by local businesses who have missed time due to contracting the virus or the need to quarantine who shared their appreciation for the mask mandate.
Commissioner Brian Shefferd stated that the low numbers of cases should lead to a repeal or a sunset of the mask mandate. Shefferd also wanted to reiterate that he does not believe that no one should wear masks, but that the decision should be left to individuals and businesses.
Mayor Bill Collins said that he has to rely on what experts in the healthcare field recommend, and thus believes keeping the mask mandate in place is necessary, at this time.
With no consensus to add an expiration date to the mask mandate, the commission moved on to discussing reopening City Hall to public traffic. City Administrator Mike Nichols shared some potential guidelines if the commission decided to open City Hall, including requiring masks, separate entrances, hourly disinfecting and limited access to some areas of the building. City Clerk Tish Sims said that her staff prefers keeping the building closed, but continuing to allow access to those who have appointments or knock on the door, which allows control of the flow of traffic through the close quarters. General consensus among the commission - except for Commissioner Shefferd who said he wanted to get City Hall open - was that as long as the crew was serving those who asked to enter, continuing the current closed status of City Hall should continue.