Rain, rain, and high winds ahead for the Pittsburgh region
People make sandbags Sunday as Hurricane Sandy approaches in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a mandatory evacuation of low-lying coastal areas of the city.
Cots are set up Sunday in the gymnasium at Roxborough High School, designated a Red Cross shelter, in Philadelphia.
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The Pittsburgh area is no place to find emergency generators, skyscraper window-washers or trick-or-treaters in skimpy costumes over the next few days, thanks to a ferocious fusion of mid-autumn weather events of rare proportion.
Home Depot stores locally have shipped their supply of generators eastward, where the need by customers is expected to be greater if Hurricane Sandy lives up to advance billing.
Unusually high and sustained local winds from today through Wednesday, including gusts up to 50 mph, will make work more difficult or dangerous for anyone who labors above ground level. The intensity will be felt by motorists on the highways as well, especially in taller vehicles like SUVs.
And a wind-swept chill will settle over the region -- a jarring contrast to last week's record high temperatures -- with temperatures in the 40s most of the week and dipping into the 30s by the time kids would normally be out on Halloween. Grown-ups might find more candy than usual still on hand Wednesday night that they'll -- horrors -- need to consume themselves.
The forecast also has some municipalities discussing whether to reschedule trick-or-treating from Wednesday to Saturday. Pittsburgh's website said the event will remain on Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
And accompanying it all will be rain, rain, rain -- somewhere between 2 to 4 inches over the next three days, according to the National Weather Service. The precipitation creates risks of flooding and of softening soil in a way that could combine with high winds to topple weakened trees in abundance. And significant snow could fall in high elevations of 2,000 feet or more, although no accumulation is expected around Pittsburgh.
An animal shelter in Kittanning is expecting flooding if the forecast holds and is soliciting volunteers to evacuate and house pets. The shelter's name: Orphans of the Storm.
The only local solace for what will be a wet, challenging week is that millions of people to the east will have it even worse. The anticipated landfall of Hurricane Sandy is to coincide with frigid air coming south from Canada, in addition to the cold front that already passed through Western Pennsylvania over the weekend.
All of that creates a megastorm expected to park over the Northeast for days, with tropical storm-force winds covering a swath hundreds of miles from the storm's center.
"This is not a common occurrence, a storm system like this," observed National Weather Service meteorologist Lee Hendricks. "There are going to be problems with downed tree branches and power lines, and even the average person driving in those wind gusts is going to notice it."
The weather service issued a flood watch and high wind watch across the region for today and Tuesday, plus a winter storm watch for counties with the greatest chance of high snowfall: Preston and Tucker in West Virginia and Garrett in Maryland.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett issued a state of emergency to cover storm-related operations, as did his counterparts in other Northeastern states. Airline travel and other transportation could be affected for days, with thousands of flights in and out of New York City and Philadelphia and elsewhere for today and Tuesday already canceled, including those that connected with Pittsburgh.
While the affected air passengers in Pittsburgh thus far are those who would have been flying to the east, Pittsburgh International Airport spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said passengers leaving for any destination early this week should be monitoring information from their airlines and media in the event local conditions deteriorate to shut down use of the airport's runways.
Today's Megabus express bus service between Pittsburgh and New York City has been canceled. As is possible with US Airways and other airlines, customers have been given a chance to reschedule travel without penalty if it was booked to take place early this week.
The storm conditions can also impact river navigation, with water becoming unusually choppy and hazardous in the type of winds being forecast. Commercial barges have to take it into account, and Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Jeff Hawk said, "I hope recreational traffic will avoid getting on the rivers. It is a much more dangerous situation with high winds."
Many local hardware stores and supermarkets were busier than usual over the weekend, similar to how people stock up when winter blizzards are forecast. Only in this case, it wasn't shovels and ice melt filling car trunks alongside milk and toilet paper, but batteries, flashlights and other alternatives if the power goes out.
The two dozen or so lanterns normally in stock at Rollier Hardware Inc. in Mt. Lebanon were gone by the end of Saturday, said general manager Kirk Satterfield. "We still have flashlights left, but they're going fast," along with all kinds of batteries, he said.
The Home Depot in East Liberty has been receiving phone calls for days from people to the east inquiring if they could buy power generators there because all were sold out where they live. But the store's 20 or more generators for sale had already been moved to stores to the east, said assistant store manager Heath Higginbotham.
"We don't want to run out of stuff, but they only make so many," he said, noting there was also high weekend sales volume of cleaning equipment and supplies such as Shop-Vacs and bleach.
Electric companies throughout the Northeast were preparing for the possibility that extra crews would be needed to restore power from downed trees that could interfere with service. Tree removal services could be deluged with calls from homeowners as well.
Winds accompanying today's rain are supposed to start out in the range of 15 to 20 mph and gusting to 30 mph, but gradually increase so that by tonight they'll be 25 to 30 mph with gusts up to 50 mph, according to Mr. Hendricks. They will still be high Tuesday, though diminishing by afternoon to an estimated 15 to 20 mph, with 35 mph gusts.
Doug Metcalfe of Aerial Arborist Tree Service in Imperial said, "The right conditions can take any tree, even if it's in good state if health, if winds are high enough, but generally windy conditions take a tree that's already compromised.
"The biggest cause of blowing down a whole tree [instead of just branches] is when the soil gets oversaturated with water. If you have trees in low areas where water can collect, it reduces the tree's ability to withstand the wind."
Mr. Metcalfe said he could do without the extra calls and work a storm like this one is expected to bring, because he won't be able to do any of his normally scheduled work this week due to conditions that make it dangerous to work in trees.
Neil Bronson Jr. of Bronson Roofing Inc. in Oakdale has also canceled roof installation projects scheduled over the next few days. He said it's not so much that high winds make the work dangerous as make it difficult, with shingles blowing everywhere.
Instead, he expects his crew of nine to be busy with emergency repairs -- even more so than is usual in storms, because wind and rain coming from the east could expose roof leaks that aren't affected in storms from other directions. Winds at 40 mph or more can rip off older shingles, in particular, as a result of sealant becoming worn over the years.
"Depending on the severity of the storm, it can cause us work lasting all the way into next year," Mr. Bronson said.
First Published October 29, 2012 12:00 am