City dealing with old snow as new storm moves in
Gene Conti checks on the 2,500-watt generator powering appliances in his Stafford St. home in Pittsburgh's Sheraden neighborhood Monday afternoon. His home has been without electricity since Friday night.
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This story was written by Rich Lord, based on his reporting and that of Paula Reed Ward, Jim McKinnon, Vivian Nereim, Pohla Smith, Mark Belko, Teresa Lindeman, Joyce Gannon and Erich Schwartzel.
With a repeat blast of snow forecast for today, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on Monday ordered a scramble to plow and salt residential streets, even as snowbound residents and traffic-tortured commuters fumed at persistently bad roads.
Drivers said they understood the historic nature of the storm that left 21 inches of mostly wet snow across the region, then deep-froze the compressed base. But they still faulted the city for what some felt was a tardy response.
"Almost two feet of snow, where do you put it?" said Jason Lazar, of Greenfield, who got from his Mirror Street home to his Downtown workplace by walking a mile and a half to a rendezvous point with a co-worker. "But I haven't seen a plow or salt truck in four days. I don't know where they are."
Mr. Ravenstahl acknowledged the city has had trouble clearing streets.
"We are doing everything we can and using every resource we can," Mr. Ravenstahl said after issuing a midday order to firefighters to get out the shovels and head into the neighborhoods. "This is something that hasn't happened since 1993. This is one of the toughest storms that the city has ever faced. So it's not going to go as smoothly as some would like, myself included."
Mary Marasco, 77, of South Oakland, said it took several hours and multiple ambulances to get her ailing sister to see a doctor at a hospice Monday afternoon.
Two ambulances got stuck in the snow on the narrow, steep streets surrounding their Lawn Street home. A third city ambulance arrived quickly, but the crew said they were not permitted to go to a hospice -- only to a hospital. Cars parked haphazardly and a construction barrier at Forbes Avenue further frustrated the mission.
"It's scary when you have someone like that -- very sick -- and you want to get them there as fast as they can."
In a late-afternoon news conference, Mr. Ravenstahl said the city is still encouraging people to stay home, but not barring them from using the streets.
At least five people are believed to have died because of the snowstorm, two of them by carbon monoxide poisoning and three by heart attacks sustained while shoveling. Hospitals reported many non-fatal shoveling problems, employers tried to adjust to travel difficulties, and in neighboring counties problems with electrical service continued even as round two loomed.
Even as some heavily used streets remained covered with hard-packed snow, Mr. Ravenstahl ordered an assault on secondary roads, saying that none should remain untreated when the next storm hits. That followed a Monday morning commute featuring hours-long snarls, and many said city arteries were particularly clogged.
"It's horrible," said Nathaniel Beall, whose Baldwin Borough-to-Lawrenceville commute took more than two hours, instead of the usual 20 minutes. Baldwin, he said, was "a little better now. They did get to most of the roads, and cleared at least one lane. It's better than anything in the city."
The city started fighting the storm with its 61 salt trucks, and a handful went out of service due to 24-hour-a-day use by workers on 12-hour shifts, said Mr. Ravenstahl.
"For the most part, our employees have done an admirable job," he said, adding that drivers "are starting to get frustrated and worn down and tired. We're going to attempt to pick them back up."
The mayor said National Guard troops in Humvees were handling non-emergency medical calls -- from sprained ankles to depleted supplies of medicine -- to free up city medics for life-threatening situations.
Council members were divided on the effectiveness of the street clearing response.
"I think that they're doing the best they can, given the situation," said Councilwoman Theresa Smith. Downed trees and impassable streets complicated the effort, she said. "You can't plan for some of the things that Mother Nature throws at you."
Councilman William Peduto said the city appears to lack a plan that makes city managers accountable for the streets.
"Our operation plans aren't outcome-based," he said. "What we have is just a goal" of getting roads cleared in 36 hours.
"They don't have a time that you can tell somebody when their streets will be plowed. That is the kind of plan that you can use to hold people accountable."
Mr. Ravenstahl said that the fourth-worst storm in city history "is not something where you can take a cookie cutter plan and implement it.
"We'll of course evaluate it once we've concluded and once our work is done."
Jane E. Stoltzman, a legal secretary, said her commute from Plum to Downtown was extended by an hour as her bus approached the city at a crawl. To her surprise, things seemed to get worse as she got closer to the region's hub.
"The sidewalks are cleaner than the streets," she said of Downtown. "How is this possible in a supposedly major city?"
Upper St. Clair has 21 trucks for snow removal -- around one-third of the city's fleet -- and around one-tenth as much roadway to clear.
"Most suburban municipalities have their acts together, and the city of Pittsburgh does not," said Jim Jenkins, the owner of Jim Jenkins Lawn and Garden Center in Upper St. Clair. "They don't go about it right. They don't have the right equipment or enough equipment."
His business has done commercial snow removal for 30 years for banks, churches and shopping centers. He said that clearing city streets is more difficult because crews have to deal with parked cars, and there's nowhere to push the snow out of the way.
Some of the worst problems were found far from Downtown.
Ms. Griffith said residents in Fayette County are increasingly frustrated because thousands have been without electricity since Friday evening. The situation is even worse in Washington and Greene counties, possibly the hardest-hit region for lost power.
Warming shelters have been set up at six volunteer fire companies, as well as at Brownsville High School and the Point Marion American Legion.
Doug Colafella, spokesman for Allegheny Energy, said the company had restored service to 160,000 customers in Western Pennsylvania, leaving 65,000 still without electricity Monday afternoon. About 12,000 of those without service were in southern and northern reaches of Allegheny County, including Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair, he said.
Allegheny Energy, which called on its service pool and outside contractors from five states, had crews working 16-hour shifts to keep pace with the work. Some customers, mostly in places difficult to reach in Washington, Greene and southern Westmoreland counties, may be without electricity for the next few days, Mr. Colafella said.
Lack of heat and a surplus of snow took a deadly toll.
The bodies of George Mateya, 60, and his daughter, Joelle Mateya, 19, of McKeesport, were found early Sunday. The Allegheny County medical examiner's office said carbon monoxide poisoning was the suspected cause of death.
Joseph Freyvogel, 57, was found dead of a suspected heart attack in his North Side home. His body was found Saturday night, not long after he shoveled at his sister's nearby house.
An emergency room cardiologist on duty at St. Clair Hospital was told two suspected heart attack victims had died before arrival at the South Hills facility on Saturday. He was prevented by federal privacy rules from disclosing any details other than that he was told each had been shoveling.
Non-fatal carbon monoxide exposures were numerous.
Donald M. Yealy, chairman of emergency medicine at UPMC, said the number of exposures seen at UPMC Presbyterian alone between Saturday and Monday morning was 23. "That is by far the largest group in two days we've seen and the most I've ever seen as a practicing physician," he said.
"The common thread was [improper venting] of a fuel burning electric generator or space heater. Carbon monoxide is the product of combustion so [venting] is what you have to think about," he added.
Within the West Penn Allegheny Health System, Allegheny General Hospital treated eight people from three families for carbon monoxide exposure on Sunday, a spokeswoman said.
Snow shoveling caused chest pain or heart attacks in numerous people.
Total numbers won't be known for UPMC for at least another day, but Dr. Yealy said he could deduce it would be higher than usual.
The 30 chest-pain patients seen at St. Clair -- at least twice the usual number -- were more varied, according to Jeffrey Friedel, the cardiologist on call over the weekend.
"We had men, women and people of all ages: a couple were elderly, one man in his early 40s, a woman in her 50s. And all of them pretty much did not have prior-diagnosed heart disease," he said.
Six of them actually had heart attacks and underwent immediate catheterizations for potential blockages. "They're all doing very well," he said.
Within the West Penn system, Allegheny General had "several people with shortness of breath or chest pain," and West Penn Hospital had two patients with chest pain after shoveling.
At Allegheny General, seven people came in during the weekend in need of dialysis.
Companies throughout the region grappled with the difficulty of moving people and goods.
Giant Eagle officials struggled over the weekend both in keeping all their regional stores open and in keeping the shelves stocked. Power went off in some areas and then came back on, only to flicker again. Consumers were advised to call their individual stores to confirm that location was open.
"There have been power outages and product was destroyed" when refrigeration stayed off too long, confirmed Dick Roberts, a spokesman for the O'Hara grocer. "If you can't keep it cold, you have to get rid of it."
Bayer Corp. on Monday had a two-hour delay in the start time for employees at its U.S. headquarters in Robinson. Spokesman Bryan Iams said the company moved the start time to 10:30 a.m. to give maintenance crews more time to clear parking lots and sidewalks and because Bayer believed it might be safer for the 1,500 workers at the campus to travel after the early morning rush hour.
The Rivers Casino was never supposed to close, but it all but shut its doors to new customers on Saturday because of the dangerous conditions. The casino announced it was closed that day, although it remained open to the employees and about 20 customers who were stranded at the complex because of the weather, acting general manager David Patent said.
For employees and guests who were stranded, the casino rented 15 rooms at the SpringHill Suites hotel near PNC Park so they could rest and shower. It also fed people at one of its restaurants.
The casino saw about $2 million in wagering Saturday, far below the $12 million to $14 million on a typical Saturday.
The casino formally reopened at 9 a.m. Sunday.
The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington County also shut down from 5 p.m. Saturday to 9 a.m. Sunday because of safety concerns, spokesman David La Torre said. It marked the first time the casino had shut its door since it first opened in 2007.
Four greenhouses at Soergel's Orchards in Wexford were destroyed in Friday night's storm when their roofs collapsed under the weight of the heavy, wet snow.
Randy Soergel estimated the damage at between $150,000 and $200,000 and said he's not sure when or if they will be replaced.
One business was seeing too many would-be customers.
J.J. Insogna, the owner of JJI Concrete Construction, said he has gotten more than 200 phone calls requesting residential snow removal. His company rejected them all because they handle only commercial work.
"I can't handle that volume of calls," he said. "I've got commercial calls, and I can't keep up with that."
Considering the condition of city roads, and some suburban side roads, Mr. Insogna wonders why the municipalities don't have ongoing contracts with private companies in the event a storm is too large for public works crews to keep up.
"In all the places we do, we're down to bare pavement," he said. "[The city] has too much area to cover, and they can't possibly get to everything."
First Published February 9, 2010 12:00 am