Pittsburgh prepares for the 'flash freeze'

With a mix of plunging temperatures, wind chill and a possible "flash freeze" forecast for the area today, everyone is talking about the weather. But here's a warm thought: It's expected to roll right back out come Wednesday evening.

A network of local agencies has launched plans for dealing with the potentially dangerous conditions.

"It's been 20 years since we've experienced these types of temperatures in Pittsburgh; some of our employees have never worked in this severe, cold weather," said Michael Huss, Pittsburgh's public safety director.

"One of the main things we're trying to emphasize is we don't want anyone hurt in this storm, from this cold weather."

With an eye toward impending temperatures described by AccuWeather meteorologist Tom Kines as "brutal," city, county and regional authorities expect to have warming centers and shelters available to those lacking heat or utilities in their homes.

"From a county EMS perspective, we've provided briefings to our local emergency management coordinators, who then forward them on to the municipal, police and EMS agencies," said Alvin Henderson Jr., chief of Allegheny County Emergency Services.

A cold front unlike any since 1994 -- when the AccuWeather high was minus-3 on Jan. 19 -- was expected to push into the area overnight Monday. Preceded by possible rain, even snow showers from 1-3 inches, the front threatened this morning's commute in the form of icy roads and bitter cold for those waiting for public transportation.

"[Sunday] will feel like summer compared to [today] and Tuesday," Mr. Kines said Sunday.

"It will not be fit for man or beast," said National Weather Service meteorologist John Darnley. On Sunday afternoon, the service issued a wind-chill warning, with wind chill expected to be as low as 45 degrees below zero, that was to be in effect from 1 p.m. today until 10 a.m. Wednesday. With temperatures expected to fall rapidly after 1 a.m. this morning, a "flash-freeze" and icy driving conditions were forecast for this morning.

Anyone venturing outside is at risk for frostbite and hypothermia -- some more than others.

"With this kind of cold and this kind of wind accompanying it, it probably takes under five minutes to get frostbite," Mr. Kines said.

"This has to be a situation where people are helping people, neighbors helping neighbors. Pay close attention to people who might not have close family or friends, just touch base with them," Chief Henderson said.

City officials announced Sunday a plan for police to visit known homeless camps and transport residents to severe weather emergency shelters.

The City of Pittsburgh will activate five warming centers, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Tuesday at Healthy Active Living Centers in Greenfield, Homewood, South Side, Sheraden and North Side.

Within the city, 311 response line call windows will be extended until 10 p.m. both days for non-emergency, weather-related issues.

Nine Washington County "warming/comfort centers" will be open both days, and relief stations are planned at volunteer fire departments in Bentleyville and North Strabane.

In Allegheny and surrounding counties, calling 211 will help direct those in need to warming centers as well as warming shelters; the latter operate around the clock. These predetermined locations will be announced as they are activated. Chief Henderson said the number of locations necessary "is the great unknown. It's a dynamic situation. We will adjust those based on need."

As they are activated, they will be listed on the Allegheny County website (www.alleghenycounty.us) as well as released to the media, he said.

"The big thing is to use common sense and basically keep your wits about you," he said. "If you get into a utility emergency and have heating issues, seek out shelter. If you do find yourself in an emergency situation, don't hesitate to call 911. If it turns out to be a 211 situation, we can forward that as well."

Comfort shelters are not just for those forced out of their homes. In conjunction with the Allegheny County Port Authority, some buses will be turned into mobile warming stations for first responders such as firemen, police and EMS.

Pittsburgh has canceled trash pickup on Tuesday. All trash will be picked up one day later than usual.

Also, a news release from the Pennsylvania State Police warns pet owners might be charged should they fail to provide animals with sufficient shelter, food and water.

According to the National Weather Service, low-temperature records for Jan. 6 and 7 are minus-5 for each date, in 1942 and 1884, respectively.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1478 or on Twitter @MariaSciulloPG. Robert Zullo contributed.

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