Schools, courts canceled as sub-zero temperature grips Pittsburgh area

This story was written by Jon Schmitz and Lexi Belculfine, based on their reporting and the reporting of Lauren Lindstrom, Andrew McGill, Eleanor Chute, Mary Niederberger, Bill Schackner and Pete Zapadka.

The coldest weather of the winter season brought much of Western Pennsylvania to a standstill today as school districts canceled classes, some government offices were closed and officials encouraged people to stay inside.

"I can't stress enough the danger that is bearing down on our city," Pittsburgh Public Safety director Michael Huss said Monday.

Pittsburghers bundling up to fight cold

Pittsburgh residents were wearing layered clothing, scarves and more to fend off the morning's below-zero temperatures. (Video by Nate Guidry; 1/7/2014)

A forecast overnight low of minus 11 degrees would be the coldest temperature recorded here since the mercury bottomed at 22 below zero on Jan. 19, 1994, according to National Weather Service data.

A wind chill warning remained in effect for Western Pennsylvania until 10 a.m. Wednesday. Today's forecast high of 2 degrees was expected to be followed by a low near zero tonight.

Temperatures should rebound to the mid-20s on Wednesday and mid-30s on Thursday. Normal high for this time is 36 and normal low is 21.

Newly inaugurated Mayor Bill Peduto said Monday afternoon that public safety during the cold "really comes down to Pittsburghers working together and helping each other."

At the first news conference of his term in office, Mr. Peduto brought his chief operations officer Guy Costa and Mr. Huss, who said the city has been preparing for the cold since Friday and is especially concerned about the elderly, children and homeless populations of Pittsburgh.

"We want to get through this event without any serious injuries," he said. "We need everyone's help in doing that."

Earlier in the day, Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services Chief Alvin Henderson outlined the region's strategy against the cold, urging residents to stay inside if possible but assuring he was ready for the worst.

Residents should call 2-1-1 (countywide) or 3-1-1 (just in Pittsburgh) if they need non-emergency help regarding the cold. The city's 311 service will extend its hours from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. today.

As the cold crept in, the city huddled together.

The county activated its Emergency Operations Center, and paramedics were treating all 911 calls for medical assistance as life-threatening emergencies. That means deploying firefighters and police officers any time an ambulance would take too long to arrive.

"A simple thing like a slip and fall can become a life-threatening thing in these kinds of temperatures," Mr. Huss said.

Additional ambulances were on duty overnight, he said, adding that one of the biggest threats in such cold temperatures is a loss of utilities, a power outage or if a gas line were to freeze. He encouraged people who lost their heat overnight to call 911.

By 9:30 p.m. Monday, the Allegheny County Emergency dispatch center had not yet received any calls for frostbite, but assisted with water main breaks and transformer fires, a supervisor said.

The Port Authority agreed to send buses to first responders if needed to serve as mobile warming stations.

Cots, blankets and volunteers were provided by the Red Cross for warming centers in Greene and Washington counties Monday night, said Lauren Ashley, spokeswoman for the Western Pennsylvania region.

Mr. Peduto stressed the importance of looking out for one another.

"A lot of people don't have the information we're giving, and we've asked neighbors to help assist, to get the word out, especially to senior citizens who are living alone," he said. "We're asking neighbors to stop in and check on them, make sure they're doing OK during the next 72 hours."

In some cases, Pittsburgh officers will check on the elderly. Officers will also be moving the homeless into shelters and citing residents who locked their pets outside.

Pittsburgh officials opened five warming centers from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. today to provide help to residents without heat. In cases of widespread power outages or other disruptions, the centers can convert to around-the-clock shelters to assist affected families. The city shelters are:

• Greenfield Healthy Acting Living Center, 745 Greenfield Ave. (412-422-6551)

• Homewood Healthy Active Living Center, 7321 Frankstown Ave. (412-244-4190)

• North Side, Allegheny Center Healthy Active Living Center, Allegheny Square (412-323-7239)

• Sheraden Healthy Active Living Center, 720 Sherwood Ave. (412-777-5012)

• South Side Healthy Active Living Center, 12th and Bingham Streets (412-488-8404)

The county will open warming centers as needed in consultation with municipal officials, Mr. Henderson said.

Mr. Peduto also touted a "proactive" policy regarding those who are homeless in Pittsburgh. City officers sought out the city's homeless to relocate them to a shelter for the night, he said. Mr. Huss said the city could not force people into those shelters.

"If someone refuses to go with us, I'm sorry, but we can't force them or take them into custody," he said.

The bitter cold meant all hands on deck for Operation Safety Net, the homeless outreach program that is part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System.

The program has extended the hours of its severe weather emergency shelter and will amp up street monitoring of Pittsburgh's homeless population.

The shelter, located at 620 Smithfield St., opened at 6 p.m. Monday through 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, two hours longer than the typical 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The shelter will continue the extended hours through tonight.

Operation Safety Net founder Jim Withers said the shelter could reach its capacity of 130 persons, but if there is overflow, other local shelters will help out. Staff and volunteers will fan out to look for people in need of clothing or shelter.

"We have teams scouring the streets looking for individuals who are high risk," Dr. Withers said.

Team members provide sleeping bags and warm socks to individuals and direct them to the shelter. Between the two teams of three on the streets and about a dozen clinicians and volunteers at the shelter, Withers said Operation Safety Net will be out in full force.

"We were able to provide all the people we know of on the streets a pair of winter boots," Dr. Withers said, estimating Operation Safety Net distributed between 150 and 200 pairs this winter through a partnership with the Rotary Club.

In Pittsburgh, city officers warned they would cite residents who locked their pets outside. Animals left outside were taken by Animal Control to the Animal Rescue League, 6620 Hamilton Ave., and will be returned to their owners, Mr. Peduto said.

The National Aviary said Monday night that its African penguins and bald eagles, which are used to temperate climates, were moved off-site until temperatures rose. Meanwhile in Chicago, the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo was brought in from the cold, expected to drop overnight to 40 below zero with windchill, a spokeswoman there said. The Pittsburgh Zoo is closed today because of the weather.

The bitter cold stems from a breakup of the polar vortex, a spinning air mass over the North Pole, said National Weather Service meteorologist John Darnley.

A weakening or splitting of the vortex reduces its ability to contain the frigid air that typically remains to the north. In this case, high-pressure ridges that formed over the Atlantic and the Bering Strait formed a lane through which the bitter cold could plunge southward.

"This is a one-time event for this week," he said. "That doesn't mean it can't reoccur."

The frigid system announced its arrival on Monday just after midnight with a blast of gusting winds that reached 53 mph in Indiana County and 52 mph at Pittsburgh International Airport. Scattered power outages occurred, with Monroeville and Westmoreland County among the hardest hit.

Temperatures tumbled from 49 degrees at 1 a.m. to below freezing by daybreak, and snow showers put down a quick blanket that froze, creating hazardous conditions for drivers and pedestrians.

The extreme cold caused innumerable closures across the region today.

U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, Erie and Johnstown will be closed, as will the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Garbage and recycling pickup in Pittsburgh will be suspended today because of the weather.

"The opportunity of possible frostbite, cardiac arrest and other imminent dangers that [workers] would be facing are not worth the one-day delay in garbage pickup," Mr. Peduto said.

Residents with Tuesday pickups were asked to leave their trash out for collection and that crews would pick it up later in the week. Wednesday through Friday collections will be made as normal. Crews will work extra hours, including Saturday if necessary, to catch up.

All 43 school districts in Allegheny County cancelled classes for today, and a few already planned a two-hour delay on Wednesday because of concerns about getting school buses up and running. Many charter, parochial and private schools also announced closures.

The forecast was so strong that some started issuing their notices Monday morning.

At Seton-La Salle High School, students and teachers won't be at school today, but classes are still in session. The school is having its first cyberschool day, using the Google Chromebooks provided to each of the 510 students.

The school's 37 teachers are expected to issue assignments by 10 a.m. -- later than the usual 7:50 a.m. start. Students are expected to be on the computer for attendance at noon. Teachers will be live on the computer from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. to answer any questions. Assignments will be due at 5 p.m.

"Most of the students like it because it will eliminate the need to make up the school day," principal Lauren Martin said.

The cold also was playing havoc with the schedules of some higher education institutions.

Carlow University, California University of Pennsylvania and Grove City College announced they will be closed today.

Community College of Allegheny County closed all of its locations for today, although classes do not start until Monday. The college will extend hours of operation until 4 p.m. Saturday to accommodate students who want to enroll, register and pay for classes.

At Duquesne University, where classes are scheduled to resume Wednesday, offices will open at 10 a.m. today although essential emergency personnel will report to work as scheduled. Residence halls will be open for students.

In neighboring New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that a 75-mile stretch of the New York State Thruway in Western New York near the Pennsylvania line were closed to traffic starting at 8 p.m. Monday.

All traffic westbound on the Thruway will be detoured at Exit 50 (I-290 west), and all eastbound traffic will be detoured at Exit 61 (Shortman Road, Ripley). The western terminus of the toll road is near Erie.

Officials said the measure was precautionary because of a forecast of 3 feet of snow through Wednesday, including lake effect snows in the area of up to four inches a hour and 40 mph winds that will drive wind chill temperatures to 40 degrees below zero.

Eleanor Chute, Rich Lord, Mary Niederberger and Bill Schackner contributed. First Published January 6, 2014 5:07 AM

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