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As temperatures plummeted Thursday, Houstonians ramped up preparations for the big freeze this weekend that promises bone-chilling cold.

Homeless shelters opened up around the clock. Authorities reached out to the elderly. And Houstonians stocked up on winter clothing.

But as residents braced for the chilly weather, some people worried more about energy bills than a few days of an Arctic blast.

After all, temperatures last month were 10 percent lower than in December 2008, and energy natural gas usage increased 17 percent during the same time period. Temperatures this weekend promise to bring the coldest weather in more than a decade.

“I worry about it. It’s going to be a problem. If it’s a big bill I won’t be able to pay that,” said Mildred Williams, 60, about her coming energy bill at her Third Ward house.

Williams’ feelings of foreboding were typical as many residents began to prepare by protecting their pipes and plants.

Nearby, 47-year-old Sarah Henderson was busily wrapping her landscaping with sheets to protect it from the cold.

And several blocks away, retired minister L.E. Gibbs was preparing his warm clothes as he anticipated turning down the heater to save on bills.

“We have to endure,” Gibbs said. “I’m always prepared.”

Freezing for 2 days?

Forecasters predict flurries this afternoon for some in the Houston area. The lowest temperatures will come tonight and Saturday night, with readings in the teens possible north of Interstate 10. Some areas north of Harris County may not see above-freezing temperatures until Saturday afternoon.

Officials said they were mobilizing to deal with the cold.

Homeless shelters were being opened 24 hours a day, and workers dropping off food to the elderly were checking that they were warm, according to the city’s Health and Human Services Department.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority initiated an emergency plan to use some vehicles as temporary, last-resort refuges from the cold at 18 transit centers across the area.

Meanwhile, Mayor Annise Parker urged Houstonians to be cautious with space heaters and avoid using stoves because of the danger of fire.

“We’ve caught a break,” she said, noting that the chance of precipitation had diminished.

At the city-run Magnolia Multi-Purpose Center in the 7000 block of Capitol, Armando Sosa, 80, grabbed a bite to eat as he recalled frigid winters during his younger days working in Ohio.

He said it was far chillier there than anything Houston could dish out.

But living by himself in Houston during cold weather takes its toll. “The bills are higher and higher,” he said. “And my bones are sore.”