Area struggles to recover from paralyzing snow storm

State, counties declare disaster emergency

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Western Pennsylvania was trying to recover this afternoon from a historic snow storm that buried roadways, shut down airports and mass transit and dragged down trees and power lines, prompting counties to declare disaster emergencies.

The dangerous snowstorm extended throughout the state, and Gov. Ed Rendell this morning declared a disaster emergency. The declaration allows officials to bypass bid and contract procedures to deal with the emergency. Pennsylvania National Guard forces have been deployed to help state police, Gov. Rendell said.

Shortly before noon today, all flight operations were suspended until further notice at both Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport. Pittsburgh International resumed operations around 8 p.m.

Earlier, officials hoped to have the ramps and runways operational by noon, but it became clear as the the morning progressed that such a timetable was unrealistic given the rate of snow accumulation, she said. Snow depth at the airport reached 19 inches this morning.

Earlier, a supervisor at the Allegheny County dispatch center said snowfalls exceeding 17 inches in combination with downed power lines combined to make numerous roadways -- including primary and secondary roads -- impassable.

Snowfall stopped around noon, providing some respite for crews that had been working around the clock trying to clear roads. Downtown seemed surreal with few vehicles or pedestrians--and the people walking were doing so in the middle of roadways. A stillness permeated the scene as three men walked down the middle of the Boulevard of the Allies videotaping the blanket of white as a city Public Works truck spread salt.

City Public Works crews were focusing on clearing primary streets. More than 60 plows were out on the road in addition to 10 crews who were assisting in tree removal with the help of city firefighters.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was in the Laurel Mountains celebrating his 30th birthday today with family and friends.

"We got up early this morning and tried to make the drive home, but we weren't successful," Mayor Ravenstahl said ina press release. "We tried again a little bit ago, but it just isn't safe out there.

"I'm monitoring the situation by phone and relying on our professional public works and safety personnel who are out at the emergency operations center. I remain anxious to get back home, and will be leaving as soon as conditions improve."

He urged residents to stay safe in their homes during the weather emergency.

About 8,000 residences were without power with the hardest hit neighborhoods being Beltzhoover, South Side and Beechview.

Earlier this morning, Sgt. Leo O'Neill of Pittsburgh Zone 6/traffic unit called the situation "hideous."

"Trees are down everywhere. There are trucks that can't move that are backing up traffic. It's a nightmare," the sergeant said.

He advised motorists to stay off the road for their own sake as well as others'. "Salt trucks can't do what they're supposed to do if people are on the road and getting stuck,'' he said.

His advice was echoed by Allegheny County Emergency Services which called on all non-essential and non-emergency vehicles to remain off of roadways to allow public works crews, power companies and emergency responders to conduct their recovery work.

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police issued an advisory about 9:30 a.m. noting that response times for 911 calls make take a little longer than usual because police and first responder vehicles are likewise hampered by the extreme weather conditions. Calls are being prioritized, meaning non-emergency calls for service will take longer for a response than on a normal day, spokeswoman Diane Richard said.

In Westmoreland County, a disaster emergency was declared because of the snowfall and the resultant downed trees that snapped electrical wires causing widespread power outages.

"If you're not essential, there's no need for you to go out. Spend some time with your family," advised EOC Supervisor Clayton Moore. "We have plow trucks stuck, tractor trailers buried all over the place, and we've were searching for snowmobiles to rescue people stuck on the turnpike."

Washington County EOC reported a similar situation with very heavy snowfall, downed trees and power lines and many unpassable roads, although main arteries remained open.

In Beaver County, emergency crews were called this morning to two hours fires, one on Allola Drive in New Sewickley Township and another on Martin Road in Hanover Township. No injuries were immediately reported.

"Our roads are still impassable in most of the county," said Eric Brewer, crew chief with the Beaver County Emergency Services dispatch center.

He estimated that half of Beaver County or more was without power and said the county itself and several municipalities had declared emergencies as crews tried to clear mammoth snow accumulations from streets.

"I measured it at my house before I left. That was at 8 o'clock. It was 17 inches," he said.

Fayette County residents were heeding the urging of officials not to venture outside.

"We really don't have any accidents because people are taking heed to the fact that they can't get out," said Susan Griffith, spokeswoman for Fayette County Emergency Management. "And nothing's open anyway."

Still, she emergency officials there and elsewhere had plenty of other problems to deal with, from reports of fires and medical emergencies to figuring out how to get some of their own colleagues to work through treacherous roads.

Much of the region was without electric service today.

As of 9:15 p.m., Duquesne Light estimated that 26,000 customers in Allegheny and Beaver counties remained without electrical service. That is down from a high of 57,000 customers who were without power this morning.

The heavy, wet snow caused limbs and trees to fall onto power lines, causing the outages, the company said. The problem was compounded by the road conditions which slowed crews from reaching some areas to restore service.

So far the company has 1,100 cases of downed wires, 250 cases of downed trees or tree limbs on wires, and 51 damaged poles.

Because of the nature of the storm, there is currently no estimated restoration time.

The company urged the public to be cautious and avoid downed wires. No one should drive over wires nor attempt to move them or trees and branches from them.

Residents are also asked to please report any outages by calling Duquesne Light at 1-888-393-7000.

A huge chunk of the service territory of Allegheny Power was also out of service this morning, said spokesman David Neurohr.

Of 710,000 customers in Western Pennsylvania, about 102,000 were without power, he said.

The company's service territory includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Bedford, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Westmoreland, Washington and Somerset counties.

"We're still in the throes of it. Our crews our working as quickly and safely as we can. It's sporadic and widespread,'' he said, noting that 2,700 separate cases needs to be addressed.

A power outage at Canonsburg Hospital caused it to go to "Code Black," meaning it was not accepting any additional patients, said spokesman Dan Laurent.

Mr. Laurent said the hospital had auxiliary power "which is capable of sustaining them for several days." The hospital, which has about 90 beds, had a fairly low census when the outage hit, he said.

"I know patient care was not impacted" from the outage, Mr. Laurent ssid, noting auxiliary power kicked in almost instantaneously.

He said some staff had problems getting to work at the other hosptials in the system--Allegheny General, West Penn, Alle-Kiski Medical Center, Forbes Regional in Monroeville and AGH's Suburban Campus in Bellevue. All hospitals have emergency operatiosn contigency plans that involve staff working extra shifts "so we've been able to sustain the operations of the hospitals," he said.

UPMC's hospitals were operating as normal, said Megan Grote Quatrini, UPMC media relations manager who was stranded without power at Seven Springs.

"Everything is business as usual" on care at Presbyterian, Magee, Shadyside and Mercy, the only places she has information for. "Our E.R.'s, our O.R's are operating at full capacity."

Volume is lower than usual at Mercy, but everywhere else it was normal she said.

As for staffing, she said all of the hospitals have been put on UPMC's weather disaster policy since 6 p.m. last night, which allows staff two extra hours to get to work. They are paid for extra time, and people at work who can't get home are provided with food, snacks, extra beds for naps for a few hours.

The domino effect of the snow emergency extended to water service. Pennsylvania American Water this afternoon issued a mandatory conservation notice because of low tank levels serving customers in Allegheny and Washington counties due to a power outage at one of their treatment plants.

The company urged customers in Allegheny and Washington counties to refrain from using water for showers, dishwashing, flushing, cooking or drinking until the issue is resolved.

The mandatory conservation notice extends throughout today. The company said it will notify customers of service resumption through its web site at www.pennsylvaniaamwater.com, under the Alert Notifications section.

Allegheny County opened warming stations for residents left without power in the wake of the storm. Check the list.

The Port Authority this morning suspended all transit service except limited service on the East Busway. The T light rail service was closed until conditions improve.

"All other bus service will remain shut down this morning due to extremely difficult driving conditions related to the winter storm that hit the region yesterday," authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said in a released statement.

The public transit agency said one bus is providing limited service on the EBA - East Busway All Stops route between Swissvale and Penn Station. The bus will not enter Downtown Pittsburgh due to the current road conditions.

An attempt to provide limited service on the 33X West Busway - All Stops route this morning had to be halted because the busway is blocked by downed power lines.

Late in the day, the Port Authority said it does not anticipate restoring bus or T service this evening and will reassess the situation early tomorrow morning.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission this morning reported the toll sytem is open but with "several trouble spots." The biggest problem area is between Donegal and Somerset.

The commission is advising anyone considering interstate travel to "reconsider."

Jackknifed tractor-trailers have made the westbound lanes between Donegal and Somerset very slow moving with sporadic complete stoppages. The eastbound lanes between Donegal and Somerset remain open but slow-moving, the commission said.

Today's snow storm is not only crippling the transportation network and shutting down activities across the region, it's smashing all-time records.

Lee Hendricks, a meteorologist with the Moon office of the National Weather Service at Pittsburgh, said daily snowfall records for Pittsburgh that have held for a century and more have been wiped out.

The original record for Feb. 5 was set in 1899 with 4.7 inches of snowfall. Yesterday, 11.4 inches fell. The record to this day was set in 1911 at 4.3 inches. So far today, 7.2 inches already have fallen.

"The records are destroyed,'' Mr. Hendricks said.

As of about 5 a.m. today and since the storm began at about 1:30 p.m. yesterday, the weather service office in Moon has seen 19 inches of snowfall -- 7.2 inches since midnight. In East Liverpool, there's been 15 inches; in Cranberry, 16 inches; in Seven Springs, 20 inches; in North Strabane, 20 inches; in Canonsburg, 13 inches; in New Kensington, 22 inches; and in Monessen, 14.5 inches.

And more snow is coming.

"We're looking at darn near 2 feet of snow on the ground before this is all over,'' Mr. Hendricks said.

Among the innumerable gatherings and events that have been cancelled or postposned was the scheduled vote today by the Fraternal Order of Police on a new contract with the city. The vote has been rescheduled for next Saturday, KDKA-TV reported.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Staff writers Bill Schackner and Mark Roth contributed.


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