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Area digging out from 'Snowmageddon'

| Monday, Feb. 8, 2010

The National Weather Service called it historic. President Barack Obama called it "snowmageddon."

But most in the Mon-Yough area and neighboring communities are calling the winter storm that dropped up to 2 feet of snow on Western Pennsylvania between late Friday afternoon and Saturday morning a major nuisance at best, and a tragedy at its worst.

At least two weekend deaths in McKeesport are attributed to the storm.

For most, however, the accumulation of wet white stuff meant lengthy power outages, stranded vehicles, treacherous traveling and canceled plans.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and officials in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties declared states of emergency, as did many individual communities.

Elizabeth Township was particularly hard hit by the storm.

The township's emergency management department declared a state of emergency at 9 p.m. on Friday and main roads in and out of the community remained closed much of Saturday.

Temporary warming shelters were set up at Blaine Hill, Greenock and Blythedale fire stations for residents who lost power due to damaged and downed power transmission lines.

Another warming shelter was later opened at Elizabeth Forward High School.

"It's been an obstacle course getting around trees and stuff," said township Emergency Management Coordinator Damien Michaels.

He said four ambulances from Elizabeth Township Area EMS worked steadily through the storm on mostly medical assistance calls for the elderly and people who'd lost power for in-home medical equipment requiring electricity.

It was a long day for the many first responders who'd been up and out on calls for the duration and aftermath of the storm.

"We couldn't keep up with all the fallen trees," said Central fire Chief Chris Molinaro, whose department helped electric and road workers throughout the storm clear fallen branches and wires.

Central Fire Station lost power at 9 p.m. on Friday and a generator and fireplace were used to keep the station habitable.

Wagner's Restaurant in Elizabeth Township opened its doors to feed tired and hungry first responders on Saturday.

Blaine Hill Chief Terry Halt took a break from emergency response efforts to grab a bite at the restaurant on Saturday afternoon. He said his home was one of many without power.

Allegheny Power spokesman David Neyurohr said about 131,000 customers in Pennsylvania lost electricity. There were 4,000 who lost power in the Elizabeth and Elizabeth township areas, which he said was one of the hardest hit communities in this part of the Mon Valley.

In McKeesport there were 2,600 customers who lost electricity as a result of the storm.

The Palisades was set up as a warm shelter in the city and at its peak there were about 50 residents staying there. McKeesport police Chief Bryan Washowich said power was mostly restored and the last of the residents at the Palisades had gone home by about noon on Sunday.

Washowich said the police department utilized four ATVs to respond to calls when roads were at their worst, "So our response time was pretty fast."

Residents in Forward Township, North Huntingdon Township, White Oak, South Versailles Township and six other regional communities were advised by Westmoreland County Municipal Authority to expect low pressure or loss of water service due to power outages.

Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin and Pittsburgh International were both closed much of Saturday while crews worked to clear away snow.

County Airport spokeswoman Jo Ann Jenny said flights began departing from the West Mifflin facility Saturday night. In addition to snow removal efforts, she said the local airport lost power and had to wait for it to be restored before reopening.

"The clearing was a much slower process than they initially thought," Jenny said.

Citizens Hose Co. No. 1 in Glassport was busy throughout Friday and Saturday, responding to almost 100 calls, most of them for downed wires, fire Chief Wayne Lewis explained. They assisted firefighters in Port Vue on a call for a structure fire on Saturday that lasted from about 1 to 6 a.m.

"Nobody got hurt and that was a good thing," said Lewis.

Lewis said authorities met before the storm and opened an emergency operations center at midnight on Saturday. He said there weren't a lot of power outages in the borough.

No major emergencies were reported in Duquesne, where authorities detoured traffic from Route 837 through the borough between Grant Avenue and the Thompson Run Bridge because of slippery conditions during the storm.

McKeesport Mayor James Brewster said city employees were going door-to-door, offering food and shelter at the Palisades to those who had power failures.

Brewster applauded Marina/Palisades manager Ray Dougherty for his efforts to get the city's dance hall ready for use as an emergency shelter. A big band concert scheduled there Saturday night was called off because of the weather.

"We're picking up the trees and plowing the roads," city Public Works Director Nick Shermenti said.

City crews dealt with more than 30 trees felled by the heavy snow and affecting adjacent power lines.

The city had 800 tons of salt in its bins, which was to be applied by public works employees after they finished concentrating on tree removal and plowing. All city trucks and 20 city employees were out on the streets.

Kevin Evanto, spokesman for Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, said more than 45,000 customers still were without power across the county as of Sunday afternoon.

"Call volumes to Allegheny County 911 remain high," Evanto said. "Residents should only call 911 in the event of an emergency."

On Saturday night, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued a cautionary boil water advisory to Southwestern Pennsylvania residents who have experienced a disruption in their water service as the result of widespread power outages.

The power outages affected operations for the Aldrich Plant of Pennsylvania American Water in Union Township, Washington County, and some customers of Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County.

Without power, a DEP spokesperson said, the suppliers are unable to draw and treat water from its source.

MAWC said Saturday that some 1,000 homes in parts of Murrysville near Sardis Road were experiencing low pressure or loss of water service.

Officials said the utility's emergency management team systematically developed a plan to restore power to critical stations by securing portable generators to most of the originally affected areas.

Once service is restored, DEP said water customers should boil water for one full minute before consuming it.

Evanto said some 40 warming centers were set up across Allegheny County to deal with the storm.

Centers open locally included Elizabeth Borough fire hall along Market Street, Central fire hall along Scenery Drive in Elizabeth Township, West Mifflin's No. 3 fire hall along Rodeo Drive, White Oak's Rainbow fire hall along Jacks Run Road and fire stations in Versailles, Baldwin, Forest Hills and two locations in South Park Township.

Also open through Sunday were centers at Elizabeth Forward and Thomas Jefferson high schools, Turtle Creek's municipal building and Munhall's Messiah Lutheran Church, where Pittsburgh officials were directing residents of nearby Lincoln Place.

Centers also were in operation through Saturday at Port Vue United Methodist Church, Sycamore Estates in Duquesne and the North Versailles Township senior citizen center.

American Red Cross Southwestern Pennsylvania Chapter spokesman Brian Knavish said his agency was involved with 16 warming centers, including the one in North Versailles.

Countywide, Evanto said, "we declared a state of disaster emergency (Saturday) at 6:30 a.m. due to heavy snow and severe winter weather conditions." An emergency operations center was activated at the county police headquarters.

"We still have a lot to do," East McKeesport Mayor Robert Howard said Sunday afternoon. "We're plowing and moving the snow."

Using high lifts and other equipment, Howard said his borough was "doing better than others," but he asked residents to be patient.

"The roads are still pretty bad," Liberty Boro Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Amy Larcinese said. "The side streets are pretty impassable."

Volunteer firefighters there took 27 calls from Friday through Sunday at noon.

They also assisted Port Vue volunteers on two "working structure fires" in Port Vue as well as a fire involving a garbage can at a Port Vue home Sunday morning.

Port Authority suspended operations through Sunday morning. Spokesman Jim Ritchie said limited bus service was restored on multiple routes, including the 46G Elizabeth on Route 51, the 56 and 61 series of bus runs and the 65A, 67A and 67F runs.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Court will be closed today, including all magisterial district judges' offices, county Court Administrator Raymond L. Billotte announced Sunday.

"All persons having business with (the) court, including prospective jurors summoned to appear on Monday ... are not required to appear," Billotte said.

Evanto said visitation was canceled over the weekend at the county jail and Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. He said clothes drop-offs also were canceled at Shuman.

Homestead police reported West Street was closed for a short time Friday night after a car spun out of control. No injuries were reported.

Police said there were some cars left stranded in the borough, and public works crews worked through the weekend to make sure the roads were safe.

Homestead did not declare a state of emergency, and no warming shelters were opened.

West Homestead police reported some trees and wires were down due to the storm, but no major emergencies occurred. The borough did not declare a state of emergency.

Munhall police were busy taking a variety of calls throughout the weekend.

The borough declared a state of emergency, and a warming shelter was opened at Messiah Lutheran Church, 4300 Main St.

White Oak also declared a state of emergency.

"There are a lot of trees down. We got a lot of damage," said Rich Bryce, team member of the White Oak chapter of the Red Cross Disaster Evacuation Team. "Parts of White Oak will still be without power (today). Parts are getting it as they can. We will be open until we are not needed."

More than 40 people have used the White Oak warming station.

The team also sent materials to the warming station at the Palisades in McKeesport.

Versailles declared a state of emergency, and a warming shelter was opened at the volunteer fire department's upper section of the fire hall at 4919 Third St.

Police Chief William Kruczek said he was surprised by the magnitude of the storm.

"I'm sure no one ever anticipated this kind of a snow storm in the area," he said. "There's probably hardship for a lot of people."

Kruczek said residents experienced power outages beginning Friday shortly after 10 p.m. Power was restored to a majority of the borough as of Saturday at 7 p.m.

Trees were down in the upper and lower sections of Versailles. The main thoroughfares were accessible, but the side streets were not drivable until Sunday.

"It's a problem getting around because of the snow on the streets," Kruczek said. "(It's) so thick. They got at least one lane (cleared) through the streets."

In Jefferson Hills, Jefferson Regional Medical Center had to go into Code Black with the center running on a generator for approximately a day, hospital spokeswoman Charlene Frederick said.

She said JRMC has two separate power sources as back up for each other.

"Because of the storm, they both went out," Frederick said.

She said the center's diagnostic imaging or X-ray couldn't feed off the generator and JRMC sent messages to EMS not to bring patients there.

Frederick said power went out late Friday night and was restored at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday.

"Everything is back to normal," she said Sunday.

As for the borough, a warming center was set up at the municipal building.

Port Vue Vigilant Hose Co. assisted by neighboring South Allegheny fire companies had an electrical fire to fight on Friday evening in an abandoned house in the 300 block of Rebecca Street.

"It started out with wires down in front of the structure," Port Vue Emergency Management Coordinator Marshall Black said. "It was arcing on the ground. The line started to burn up a tree."

He said the house began to burn at approximately 11 p.m.

"We could attack it from the side," Black said. "It was unsafe to do an internal attack or be within 100 feet of it because of the electricity. We had to wait for Duquesne Light, who arrived at 3 a.m. They said there were 4,000 volts going through the line."

The grid later was shut down, causing a power outage for most of Port Vue.

"The brick home is gone," Black said. "It is a loss."

Liberty Volunteer Fire Department, Lincoln Volunteer Fire & Rescue Co., Glassport Citizen's Hose VFC and McKeesport Fire Department provided assistance at the scene.

The fire companies also had difficulty with water sources and Lincoln VFRC provided its tanker and McKeesport Fire Department gave water source advice.

Black said that after originally being told power wouldn't be restored until today, he made some calls and power was restored on Saturday at 3 p.m.

He said Port Vue didn't declare a state of emergency because Allegheny County's declaration covered the borough.

Black said there were trees and wires down all over the borough, but most motorists seemed to stay off the roads.

In Lincoln, Mayor Nick Vay declared a state of emergency and many roads were impassable due to fallen trees.

"We were cutting a tree to clear the road and another fell right behind us," Lincoln VFRC Chief Don Bertok said. "We left that scene because it wasn't worth getting someone hurt."

Portions of Lovedale Road, Harrison Road and Liberty Way were closed because of trees down.

Bertok said borough residents serviced by Allegheny Power had outages, and those serviced by Duquesne Light seemed to be unaffected.

Lincoln VFRC's station and social hall were without power and a backup generator.

"We've been trying to get grants for that, but have been unsuccessful," Bertok said. "EMS has been taking oxygen bottles to people and performing welfare checks."

He said there were many vehicles stuck throughout the borough.

Pleasant Hills Mayor Warren Bourgeois called a state of emergency and many houses didn't have power.

Borough Emergency Management Coordinator and police Chief Ed Cunningham said Pleasant Hills had quite a few houses without power.

He said there was a warming center at the municipal building, but it didn't have sleeping quarters.

"We're suggesting residents in homes without power stay with a family member with power," Cunningham said.

He said several vehicles were stuck on streets during the storm.

West Elizabeth is in a state of emergency declared by Mayor Ralph Harrington.

"We have power lines down," borough Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Wolfgang said. "Part of the town has no phone service or cable."

Wolfgang said there were residents without electric service and there were trees down.

He said roads are passable, with some only having one lane open. Wolfgang said the borough truck was stuck in the snow and a grader and bobcat had to be used to get it out.

Wolfgang said residents were able to utilize a warming center set up at Elizabeth Learning Center in Elizabeth.

South Versailles Township was not in a state of emergency, though some residents were without power.

"Right now we have trees hanging on lines," commission board President Jay Warabak said Sunday afternoon. "We're mainly worried about the electric coming back on."

He said the township doesn't have a warming center, but there is one close by in White Oak.

Clairton City Manager Ralph Imbrogno said public works crews were stationed at city hall and doing whatever they could to keep roads clear.

"Were basically paralyzed here in Clairton," he said. "You see a few cars here and there, but pretty much everyone here is snowed in."

He said a "good percentage" of the city was without power Saturday and that local churches had opened their doors as "warming centers" for residents.

In Wilmerding, Mayor Dominick Pomposelli declared a state of emergency early Saturday morning.

Council President Steve Shurgot said the borough was dealing with a few weather-related situations throughout Saturday, including downed power lines that closed Middle and Airbrake avenues between First and Fifth streets. Fire crews also responded to a downed power line in the 800 block of Middle Avenue.

"There are a lot of trees and branches down everywhere," Shurgot said. "That's affecting power for some of our residents."

In Westmoreland County, North Huntingdon Township, Irwin and North Irwin declared states of emergency Saturday.

North Huntingdon Township police dispatchers said there were no reports of major accidents in the township Saturday, adding that there were few cars on the roads. Though crews continued to plow and clear roads, conditions remained unfavorable for driving, dispatchers said.

"We have about 6,400 people without power," Board of Commissioners President Lee Moffat said. "With the temperatures dropping tonight, that's a bit of a concern."

Warming stations were set up at Circleville, Hartford Heights, Westmoreland City and Larimer volunteer fire departments.

Public Works Director Richard Albert said after a January commissioners meeting that the township salt supply was holding up well. The township needs about 150 tons of salt for one trip on its more than 600 roadways.

North Irwin residents reported road crews working throughout the night to keep borough streets clear. One of the biggest issues in the .5-square mile borough is finding places to put the snow once it's plowed, officials said.

Mayor James Douglas said the borough declared a state of emergency to help crews do whatever was needed to keep residents safe.

"We just need to be able to keep everyone off the streets so we can get the streets all clean," he said Saturday. "Actually, they're looking good. We'll just keep praying that the sun stays out and helps us a little bit."

Irwin Mayor Daniel Rose said the biggest problem is the small number of borough employees, leading him to issue the declaration.

"We're really short of people to help we really only have two people on the street department working full time," he said.

Rose said there were no accident reports in Irwin, with most people staying home instead of braving the weather.

"We're handling it pretty good," he said.

Westmoreland County also issued a county-wide state of emergency. Such a declaration allows officials to bypass standard procedure to hire temporary workers, rent equipment and purchase supplies and materials if needed.

Staff writers Patrick Cloonan, Michael DiVittorio, Kelly Fennessy, Stacy Lee and Eric Slagle contributed to this story.

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