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Munster native Tricia Schmeuser had the day off because of frozen plumbing at work Tuesday, when it was minus 11 degrees Fahrenheit in her home city of Indianapolis with a real feel of minus 24.

Her 2014 Chevy Cruze wouldn't start, so she called roadside assistance and was put on hold for two hours. Schmeuser then was told to await a text message when a driver would arrive.

"Two hours go by, no text," she said. "Call back, another 45-plus minutes on hold for them to tell me they can give me an (estimated time of arrival). Hang up, they called me back shortly after with an ETA of four hours."

It was eight hours before her car was running again.

Pummeled with below-zero temperatures in recent days, residents across the state and Region have dealt with dead batteries, flat tires, frozen fuel lines, dinged-up rims and a gamut of other issues.

Valparaiso resident Meghan Gustafson said her family has dealt with a total of four dead car batteries and a flat tire between her vehicle, her husband's, her father-in-law's and her brother-in-law's.

Herb Stepherson, also a Valparaiso resident, was stranded in the sub-zero temperatures and needed a tow to get his tire fixed.

"Because of the cold, also, we have been having strange power surges," he said.

It's been an inconvenience for many people including Whiting resident Chantene Zichterman, who has been scrambling to find alternate ways to get to doctor's appointments after Walmart didn't have her car's battery in stock, and for Hammond resident Priscilla Mejia, whose 2006 Chevrolet Impala wouldn't start and had flat tires.

"This is my only car that I take my daughter back and forth to school in, and her school is 45 minutes away," Mejia said.

In some cases, the cold's toll on cars has even been potentially life-threatening.

Valparaiso resident Manuel Rodriguez's family was stranded on Christmas Eve while trying to go to a family Christmas party.

"That night could have ended up tragic, because my muffler's exhaust fumes started to come into the car and made my kids ill," he said. "Thank God a stranger came to their aid and allowed them to heat up in his car while we drove an hour to pick them up."

Rodriguez said he is grateful a passing motorist helped out.

"I would love the opportunity to thank him," he said. "My daughter offered him some gas money but he didn't want anything. He just made sure they were warm. My car has since been stranded, but my children are OK."

Business booms

Local mechanics, and tire store and aftermarket auto parts shop employees said they've been slammed the past several days.

Hub Cap World and Tire at 6309 Indianapolis Blvd. in Hammond has been swamped with flat tires, cracked rims and bent rims. Customers have suffered the usual pothole damage and rim damage from sliding into curbs, but also many flats because tires lose pressure in freezing temperatures when they're underinflated.

"It's been an avalanche of tires," owner Bob Dinnocenzo said. "It's been crazy. It's been nonstop customers all week."

Dinnocenzo said it's been worse than usual this winter because roads were fixed throughout the Region, so drivers didn't notice wear on their treads and didn't get their tires taken care of in the fall.

"People weren't paying attention to their tires in the fall after the state repaved a lot of roads," he said. "Then it got really cold. If you have even a little bend in your rim, you'll lose tire pressure in this cold."

Levin Tire & Service Center, which has six locations across the Region, has been jam-packed. Chip LaRock, a service adviser at the Highland location, said cars are getting more dinged and banged up because there hasn't been as much snow as usual so motorists aren't slowing down on the slick ice.

The descent of Arctic temperatures also has caused a lot of damage.

"We have been very busy since after Christmas with vehicles being towed in, batteries failing, coolant lights and tire lights coming on," LaRock said. "The tires are not aired up properly; most often not enough air is put in the tire."

LaRock said since rubber hardens in the cold, it does not have the best seal on a tire rim, which can cause minor amounts of air inside the tire to escape.

Lastly, LaRock suspects most towns use inexpensive road salt, which may contain stray items that could puncture tires. 

"They buy it in bulk amount," he said. "It is cheaper for towns to purchase in this manner."

Motorists also have had to replace windshield wipers, which have been tearing because they're straining to push snow or ice off the windshields, LaRock said.

"Try to clear the snow or ice from your windshield before driving away and operating them," he said.

"Windshield fluid freezing is also a common problem because people have added water to their mixture to try and extend the amount of fluid they can use. This can lead to more problems in the long run with parts freezing and breaking."

LaRock encouraged people to start winterizing their cars in the fall, before snow and cold temperatures hit. 

"Check your tires, battery, fluids and any other vitals to help your car perform," he said. "If anything seems like it may not be able to function in the cold, don’t risk it, and just replace it."

Lives affected

Many motorists have been left to fix their own cars, such as U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. John Wayne Reeves Jr., who drove home to Cedar Lake from Camp LeJeune in North Carolina to visit his parents for Christmas.

"In a bitter cold garage and with the help of his friends he learned and installed his own brakes," his mother, Sherryl Reeves, said. "A local mechanic had time to schedule him for the battery installation and coolant repair. With the help of mom and dad, he will return on newer and safer tires."

Sherryl Reeves said her son also helped replace a frozen battery in his sister’s car.

"We have one more week before he leaves again for LeJeune to go wherever the Marine Corps may send him," she said. "We are thankful for these moments 'frozen' in time, because it warms our heart to see him, no matter the weather."

The latest Arctic blast also has been affecting people's livelihoods. Valparaiso resident Sara Port said her husband has been unable to start his semitrailer.

"Several semitrucks and trailers are suffering from frozen equipment such as trailers' bags will not expand with air or are popping, tires are freezing, batteries are dying and fuel lines are freezing, making them inoperable," she said.

Car repairs have been a financial hit for many families, since the cold spell came right after Christmas and New Year's Eve spending, Chesterton resident Stephanie Eiden said. She said car troubles also have intensified cabin fever at a time when many are hunkering inside because of the cold.

Her car won't start, and the front hood was frozen to where it wouldn't open.

"My battery died on the 1st, and I simply can't afford to do anything," she said. "I finally got in contact with a mechanic who's going to plug the battery in, but I can't drive. My boys have to do a newspaper route, and we've had to borrow vehicles from my family. It's taking all of our survival skills."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.