Commuters, homeowners and parents had no shortage of headaches during the mid-February cold snap that iced roads, froze pipes and closed schools.
But for Randy Stephenson, who lives in a tent here, the wintry weather was more than inconvenient – it was life-threatening.
Fortunately for Stephenson and a few others, community groups and Johnston County government came together to make sure no one had to sleep outside in a week when the temperature fell to as low as 10 degrees.
On the nights of Feb. 18-19, First Baptist Church opened its Ministry Center on South Fourth Street to the American Red Cross and county government for use as a warming shelter. On Monday, the night the snow fell, the county opened shelters in Clayton and Smithfield in case commuters got stuck on the drive home.
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While Stephenson said several times that he knows how to survive in the cold and has done so in the past, he also stressed how grateful he was to those who gave him warm places to stay throughout the wintry week.
“These people are real nice people to me,” he said. “If it weren’t for this place right here, I don’t know what I’d do. I love these people.”
Stephenson took advantage of shelters every night they were available; he spoke most fondly about the night of Feb. 17, when he stayed free at a local hotel.
“Boy that was nice,” he said. “Double bed, four pillows and a big old TV. I had a good time.”
The warming shelter at First Baptist was a collaborative effort, said Kim Robertson, director of Johnston County Emergency Services. The Red Cross provided two shelter managers, and Johnston County supplied staff from the Department of Social Services, Emergency Medical Services and a sheriff’s deputy to ensure each night went smoothly.
Those visiting the shelter had access to a hot shower, a cot to sleep on and plenty of food, including two meals and snacks to take with them the following morning.
The staff forwent sleep and instead spent the nights chatting, watching television and keeping an eye on the shelter.
DSS administrator Allison Smith said keeping voices down for the shelter tenants proved challenging Wednesday night, when the staff watched a closely contested North Carolina-Duke basketball game in which the Blue Devils won 90-92 in overtime.
“I tried to keep it low because they were sleeping, so I didn’t yell too much, Smith said. “But if had been at home, it would have been a totally different story.”
Robertson, the Emergency Services chief, said the space First Baptist provides is perfect for a shelter because it is just the right size, and she thanked Pastor Lee Colbert for being such a willing partner.
“Lee’s always good to me,” she said. “Whether it be tornadoes or winter storms or whatever, he’s calling and saying, ‘Kim, what can we do?’ ”
Located across Fourth Street from the church, the Ministry Center sees plenty of regular use from the church and numerous Alcoholics Anonymous groups. But Colbert said he wanted to make sure it could double as a shelter in times of need.
“We have space, they have the manpower, and it makes sense to try to help people out if they need it,” he said.
And while he would love to think the community would never need it, Colbert said the building has been wired for emergency power and could house up to 200 people during a disaster.