January could end up as one of the coldest months in recent memory

Tom Fontaine
| Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, 11:15 p.m.

The mercury hasn't hit bottom yet.

January ranks as one of the most bitingly cold months Western Pennsylvanians can remember, though certainly not a record. A cold snap early in the month made the temperature plummet to 9 below zero near Pittsburgh International Airport with a wind chill that felt like 30 below.

State College-based AccuWeather predicts a low of 10 below zero on Tuesday as part of the latest bone-chilling cold spell, one that will extend through at least Jan. 31.

“We've been selling a lot of winter tires. People who have decided to try and wait to see how the winter goes, I think finally pulled the trigger,” said Nick Lenhart, manager of Lenhart's Service Center in North Huntingdon. “They realized it's not just going to be a one and done.”

The extended severe cold is a chilling prospect that could endanger seniors, strain utilities and put businesses and schools farther behind schedule.

“Seniors can be more vulnerable” to problems from the cold, said Darlene Burlazzi, deputy administrator of the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging.

The agency serves about 4,500 people in the county, about one-third of whom are monitored through a program for homebound seniors. The agency is replenishing the “snowy weather boxes” it provides the seniors, which include nonperishable food, a flashlight and batteries and slippers, Burlazzi said.

Marc Cherna, Allegheny County's human services director, encouraged people to check on elderly neighbors to ensure they have a list of emergency telephone numbers handy and that their furnace is working and their sidewalks and steps are clear.

The weather has cut operations and attendance at Lutheran Service Society's five senior centers in Westmoreland County.

“We've had to cancel a couple days because of the weather, which is not good,” said Katy Lowstetter, program manager in Westmoreland County.

January could end up with as many days of sub-zero temperatures — seven — as the region had in the past decade combined, according to National Weather Service data and forecasts.

January had three sub-zero days through Thursday, including lows of 9 below on Jan. 7, 7 below on Jan. 6 and 5 below on Wednesday. The low temperature could dip below zero on four of the next eight days. The forecasted low on Tuesday of 10 below would equal the coldest temperature in a decade, National Weather Service records show.

The balmiest day on the horizon? Saturday, when the temperature is expected to soar to 27 degrees. There's also a 90 percent chance of snow, with up to 4 inches possible, according to forecasts.

“Anyone who doesn't dress well for the weather will be at risk for hypothermia and effects from the cold,” including wind burn, frostbite and dehydration, said Khlood Salman, an associate professor of nursing at Duquesne University who specializes in public health.

At Abigail's Coffeehouse, a coffee shop and café on the Diamond in Ligonier Borough, business has slowed about 30 to 40 percent during the recent cold weather, according to owner Dianne Stewart. “People aren't going out because of the roads and cold temperatures,” she said.

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said the cold should boost demand for electricity and natural gas, but the commission doesn't anticipate problems.

Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Alvin Henderson Jr. is concerned that up-and-down temperatures could wreak new havoc on water lines and other pipes such as those that popped during January's first big cold punch.

“During the first cold snap, the temperature went down and it stayed there for a few days before going back up. What concerns me moving into next week is that temperatures dipping and coming up and dipping again will stress water lines,” Henderson said.

Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said districts don't formally report delays or cancellations to the department, but both appear to be up this year — in large part because of the cold. That doesn't mean school years will be extended into June yet, Eller said, noting districts typically include three to five “weather” days in their calendars.

School officials said they are taking the next week a day at a time. Sometimes decisions whether to cancel or delay school are made on a minute-by-minute basis. Pittsburgh Public Schools spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the district canceled school twice during the first cold snap.

Norwin School District builds four or five “snow days” into the school calendar each year. So far, Norwin has canceled school twice and delayed the start of classes three times in January because of wintry conditions, spokesman Jonathan Szish said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Staff writers Rossilynne Skena Culgan and Nicole Chynoweth contributed to this report.

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