For Western Pa., rain, rock slides and heavy wind; calls for caution

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Residents of southwestern Pennsylvania hunkered down for a second day of wind, rain and weather-related hassle as Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy continued grinding a path across the Northeast.

The storm, which lost its hurricane status Monday night as it neared landfall on the southern New Jersey shoreline, nevertheless walloped much of the eastern half of the country with a deadly mix of blowing rain -- and along the Appalachian highlands, heavy snow -- that knocked down trees and powerlines, cut power to tens of thousands of people, and damaged homes and other property.

The National Weather Service reported 1.25 inches of rain had fallen in the Pittsburgh area between 7 a.m. and midnight Monday night, a number that was sure to grow overnight.

Utility companies reported that more than 1 million people were without power across the state, most of them in the southeastern area around Philadelphia's suburbs. That number was expected to grow as the storm moved into southwestern Pennsylvania, where it prompted officials to announce scores of closures, postponements and cancellations.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, the strong winds and rain had knocked out the power for about 650 Duquesne Light customers last night, according to spokesman Brian Knavish.

About 5,200 West Penn Power customers were without power as of 10:30 p.m., spokesman Mark Nitowski said. About half of those customers were in Allegheny County, including nearly 1,700 in North Fayette. About 1,200 were in Westmoreland County.

Officials said there were two fatalities in connection with the powerful storm. Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Ruth Miller said the deaths occuirred in Susquehanna and Berks counties.

An 8-year-old Susquehanna County boy died Monday afternoon when a tree limb fell on him in Franklin Township, north of Montrose. In Berks County, a 62-year-old man died after a tree fell on top of a house in Pike Township near Boyertown.

President Barack Obama declared an emergency in Pennsylvania and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response to the onset of Hurricane Sandy.

The president's action authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts and provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures.

In the Pittsburgh area, local officials had warned residents to get home and stay there until the storm subsided -- a suggestion many people heeded to the point that roads became choked with cars during Monday evening's rush hour and many commutes took hours instead of minutes.

And across the region today, thousands of people will try to work from home while, in many cases, they also will care for their children kept home by dozens of school closures and delays. Among them were Pittsburgh Public Schools and all campuses of the Community College of Allegheny County, which canceled today's classes, along with many others, while some districts opted for a two-hour delay.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl ordered all non-emergency city employees to stay home today and City Council has cancelled all Tuesday meetings.

Many communities including the City of Pittsburgh postponed trick-or-treating hours until Saturday evening, but left trash removal services as scheduled.

As the storm advanced into the area Monday night, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told residents to stay off the roads during the storm if possible, and to assume that outages and closures could continue for a few days.

"We anticipate it could be a couple of days with roads, with bridges and with power," he said during a news conference at the county emergency operations center. "We just don't know what we're going to have."

The National Weather Service predicted the storm to peak in southwestern Pennsylvania between 10 p.m. Monday and 4 a.m. today, with sustained winds of 25 to 35 mph and gusts of 60 to 70 mph. Those winds have great potential to damage trees, down power lines, and block or damage roads and bridges, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Area residents should have enough food, water, medicine and other essential supplies on hand to last for at least 72 hours in case of power outages or road closures, Mr. Fitzgerald said. They also should charge their cell phones -- or set up a battery-powered radio -- to continue receiving weather updates and news about closures and emergencies even during any power outages.

The Weather Service issued a flood warning for urban areas and small streams in Allegheny County until 11:45 a.m. today.

Residents can help ease flash flooding that was expected after the storm dumped from 2 to 4 inches of rain on the area by clearing catch basins near their homes, said Allegheny County Chief of Emergency Services Alvin Henderson Jr. But he cautioned it should only be done if it is safe to do so.

Flooding is often seen in communities such as Millvale, Etna, West Elizabeth, Carnegie and parts of the South Hills, but masses of leaves in the streets create their own problem when they clog catch basins, he said.

The rain triggered a rock slide on the Tri-Boro Expressway in North Versailles and residents in dozens of communities reported basement flooding.

Members of Pittsburgh's swiftwater rescue team also reported last night that creeks had begun to rise around Overbook near Route 51 and Route 88.

With tropical-force winds creating dangerous driving conditions around Philadelphia, Gov. Tom Corbett closed the full length of Interstates 95 and 676; portions of I-476; I-76 and U.S. Route 1 to all traffic except emergency vehicles from 7 p.m. through 2 a.m.

Mr. Corbett reiterated that motorists should not travel during the storm to ensure their safety and the safety of emergency responders who may be assisting in storm operations.

About 1,600 Pennsylvania National Guardsmen have been called up, and Mr. Corbett said another 16,000 are available, if needed.

"Hopefully we won't have to use them, but we are prepared to use them," he said. "They are all on standby."

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said the transit agency is mobilizing resources as it would in any severe storm to react to possible blockage of bus and rail routes by downed trees, landslides and flooding.

The authority at this time is not contemplating a total shutdown of the system as has occurred or will occur in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

With widespread power outages expected, utilities brought in crews from other parts of the country to be ready as soon as trouble hit.

Todd Meyers, a spokesman for West Penn Power, said 100 extra people will be coming to the West Penn Power region.

The entire service area of First Energy, parent company of West Penn Power, was expected to be affected by Hurricane Sandy: from northwestern Ohio to the New Jersey coast and south into Maryland and West Virginia. And while winds are expected to diminish by mid-day, rain is expected to continue for a few days, potentially leading to flooding, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Fred McMullen. The next possibility of sunshine is Saturday.

"We don't anticipate a rapid rise of streams and creeks. We anticipate a gradual rise ... overnight," he said. Driving in some spots could be hazardous if water covers roadways, he said.

"Thankfully we've been dry. The ground can hold a lot of moisture," Mr. McMullen said.

No snow is expected to fall in Pennsylvania but blizzard-like wind and snow pummeled the higher elevations in West Virginia and Maryland, including Tucker, Preston and Garrett counties. Travel in that area, through which Interstate 68 passes, was expected to be very hazardous with blowing wet snow accumulating 1 to 2 feet overnight in the Allegheny Plateau, and about 9 inches in the ridges of Westmoreland and Fayette counties.

Flooding is forecast later in the week on the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers. The Mon is expected to crest at 22.3 feet at the Point on Wednesday afternoon, which will swamp the Mon Wharf parking lot and 10th Street Bypass.

The Mon Wharf parking lot is closed today.

weather - state

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: Jon Schmitz: Liz Navratil: Staff writer Ann Belser and the Associated Press contributed. First Published October 30, 2012 4:00 AM


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