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Be prepared: Brief yet brutal cold arrives in Western Pennsylvania |

Be prepared: Brief yet brutal cold arrives in Western Pennsylvania

Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Ice floating down the Allegheny River combines with river debris to freeze along the North Shore Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
A two-year old heifer lifts her head up from grazing at vast farmland of Cowden Valley Farm along Hornhead Road in Washington County on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014.

This week’s below-zero temperatures threaten life, livestock and infrastructure during a brief yet brutal cold snap that has government leaders issuing stern warnings.

“If it does get as cold as it’s predicted, there is a risk, and we want to make sure people realize it and they’re well-informed,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department.

The National Weather Service in Moon issued a wind chill warning from 1 p.m. Monday through 10 a.m. Wednesday. Temperatures could drop as low as 8 to 15 degrees below zero Monday night, the coldest Pittsburgh has experienced in at least five years. Combined with wind gusts of up to 20 mph, the air could feel as cold as 25 to 40 degrees below zero.

The low wind chill index increases the possibility of frostbite, which occurs within 30 minutes at 19 below zero, and within 10 minutes at 33 below zero.

“This is going to be a dangerous situation, make no mistake,” said Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Mike Huss, who on Sunday announced precautions such as delaying some garbage collection. “It’s going to be dangerous for city workers and our most vulnerable populations.”

In advance of what forecasters called a “polar vortex settling over a chunk of the northeast, several Midwestern states on Sunday got up to a foot of snow. Icy, snow-covered roads and high winds made travel treacherous from the Dakotas and Michigan to Missouri. Wind chill warnings stretched from Montana to Alabama.

Officials suggest anyone heading outside to wear multiple layers of lightweight clothing, which can provide more protection from the elements than a single heavy coat, Hacker said. Runners might want to opt for indoor training, as sweat can make the body colder.

Huss officials would not urge workers to stay home.

“The city still has to operate,” he said. “Our hospitals still need to be open; our facilities and financial centers still need to be open.”

Pittsburgh will open up its five Active Living Centers as warming stations from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday. In Washington County, the Department of Public Safety is opening up nine senior centers to all residents on Monday and Tuesday as warming centers.

The same directive to stay warm rings true for animals: The state Department of Agriculture cautions pet and livestock owners to be extra mindful of animals during cold weather.

Dametta Soergel runs a farm in Butler, where animals from Soergel Orchard in Wexford stay for the winter. Animals, from sheep to horses to goats, wander into barns for warmer shelter, and Soergel puts up wind breaks by fences to keep away the chill.

Plenty of extra food, water and bedding keeps barns and shelters warm. Horses in particular, Soergel said, particularly don’t seem to mind the cold.

“As the weather changes, they start their winter coats, so they’re nice and fluffy and fat and happy,” she said, adding that goats tend to be the most vulnerable.

The most important thing, Soergel said, is to frequently change water to prevent freezing. Wells, pipes and buckets of water can all potentially freeze, leaving animals dehydrated.

Larry Yakich, battalion chief with District 1 of the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau, said crews responded to multiple calls for water main breaks over the weekend in the North Side and Downtown. They can lead to water damage in buildings, or burst sprinklers.

“Usually when it’s cold overnight and it starts falling a little bit, that’s when it bursts,” he said.

In Beaver County, more than 2,300 residents were without water because a main broke along Tyler Street in Aliquippa Friday morning. By Saturday evening, service had been restored.

Huss said the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority would have extra staff on hand to deal with frozen pipes. The city planned to skip garbage collection routes on Tuesday, delaying the schedule by a day.

Huss and University of Pittsburgh emergency medicine resident Dr. Lenny Weiss urged people to drive carefully and check on neighbors.

“Even if someone doesn’t have a health problem, they can get very cold, very fast,” Weiss said. “You can get frost-nip and tissue damage after just a few minutes, so if you have an injury and can’t get up, you could very easily succumb to the cold.”

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