Record low puts Pittsburgh in the deep freeze



Louis Rash was outside for 45 minutes Monday night, but that was all it took for him to get frostbite on his hands and fingers.

It was a painful lesson for the 30-year-old Penn Hills man who only recently moved to this area from Hattiesburg, Miss. Doctors at UPMC Mercy will have to wait until sometime today to determine the extent of the damage from the bitter cold that gripped Western Pennsylvania for the past two days.

Officials and medical experts warned residents to take precautions against the subzero temperatures, and Mr. Rash wishes he had listened more carefully.

Humane officers remind people to get pets inside

Frigid weather is a problem for pets, too. Humane officers have been making the rounds to ensure pet owners are getting their dogs and cats inside and out of below-zero temperatures. (Video by Nate guidry; 1/7/2014)

"I did take it too lightly," he said. "At the least, wear gloves."

He was among a half-dozen people who were treated at UPMC hospitals for exposure to the cold, said UPMC spokesman Rick Pietzak. Five people were treated for frostbite and one man, who was in his 90s, was treated for hypothermia.

After a two-day stretch that was fit for little other than icicle farming, temperatures were expected to climb back toward seasonal normals, and then some, with AccuWeather forecasting a toasty high of 53 on Sunday.

For the time being, it will remain a bit nippy, to say the least, with Tuesday night's overnight low of near zero giving way to a high in the low 20s today and a high Thursday approaching 40. The seasonal average high is 36.

The Tuesday low temperature of minus 9 broke the all-time record for the date of minus 5, set in 1884. Monday also saw a record low, minus 7, shortly before midnight, eclipsing the previous low for the date of minus 5 set in 1942.

The wind chill factor at Pittsburgh International Airport dipped to minus 31 shortly before 2 a.m. Tuesday. Shortly thereafter, a wind chill of minus 40 was recorded at Jefferson Hills.

For the most part, residents, schools and some government offices heeded many of the warnings, which essentially said: Stay indoors.

Most schools and government offices, including courts, were closed Tuesday. Many private-sector employers also gave workers the day off, and traffic on streets and sidewalks in Downtown was sparse.

As the day progressed on Tuesday, more and more schools announced delayed starts for school Wednesday, and some districts said they would not hold classes today, often because of expected problems with bus fleets. For the latest announcements of school closings, go to pittsburgh.cbslocal.com.

A few scattered water main breaks were reported in Bloomfield, Elizabeth Borough and Peters.

But Josephine Posti, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania American Water, said the weather had not contributed to any major problems for the utility. However, the cold did affect scheduled maintenance. Ms. Posti said only emergency work would be done until temperatures rose.

Power outages, issues

Scattered power outages were reported overnight into Tuesday, and as of 3 p.m., West Penn Power reported a handful of customers without service in Washington, Westmoreland, Butler and Allegheny counties. In Armstrong County, 16 customers had no electricity.

AAA had its busiest morning of the season assisting stuck motorists.

Bevi Powell, senior vice president for AAA East Central, said about 1,900 member service calls were handled from midnight to noon, more than double what is typical for a Tuesday morning in winter.

About 100 were from drivers who locked their keys in the car while warming it up.

Pittsburgh International Airport had 48 cancellations of arriving or departing flights and 73 delayed flights as of 2 p.m. Tuesday, according to FlightStats.com. On Monday, 77 flights to or from PIT were canceled and 169 were delayed.

Morning service on the Blue and Red lines was disrupted by a pair of broken-down vehicles and a power interruption at the rail yard caused a delay for afternoon travelers.

The city of Pittsburgh planned to resume regular garbage and recycling pickup today, after suspending it on Tuesday. Residents whose collection day is Tuesday should leave their garbage at curbside -- crews will put in extra time to catch up.

Frostbite is serious

But some people, like Mr. Rash, failed to take proper precautions -- and they paid a price.

Jon Rittenberger, a UPMC physician, said they often see a surge of cases during the first bout of extreme cold weather.

He said that while mild "frost nip" can be reversed after 10 to 15 minutes of warming up, frostbite is more severe. Frostbite occurs when ice crystals form in the tissue, causing damage that can take weeks or months to treat. More serious still is hypothermia, which occurs after prolonged exposure to low temperatures. Core body temperatures dip from the normal 98.6 degrees into the 80s or 70s.

Mr. Rash got into trouble while trying to jump-start his car and said he scraped the ice-covered windows without gloves.

Mr. Rash spent the night at UPMC Mercy and was treated in the hospital's burn center.

"They said it was going to get worse before it got better, which was the truth," Mr. Rash said. "When I woke up, my fingers were huge."

To relieve pressure, doctors opened some of the blisters on Mr. Rash's hands.

Because he has feeling in his hands, Mr. Rash said he hopes to keep his fingers.

"Hopefully they are savable," he said. "I want my fingers."

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Lauren Lindstrom: llindstrom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1964. Lexi Belculfine, Molly Born and Eleanor Chute contributed.


First Published January 7, 2014 12:26 AM

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