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In Pittsburgh, frigid winter turns into Category 5

Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, 10:42 p.m.

Winter has been so bad, it's spawned a whole new vocabulary.

First, it was the Weather Channel naming winter storms, and then the Polar Vortex entered normal conversation.

Now, courtesy of a pair of Midwestern meteorologists, we have a new way to measure — and talk about — our misery. Their Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index ranks winters from category one (the least severe) to category five (the most severe).

Pittsburgh wasn't among the two dozen cities in their original study, but index co-creator Steve Hilberg, a meteorologist at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center at the University of Illinois, crunched the numbers for Pittsburgh and declared the city has just edged into a category five winter.

Ross plumber Terry Mertz didn't need a calculator to reach that conclusion.

“It's been brutal. It's been terrible ... trudging with a water heater through crusted snow and ice, people not cleaning their sidewalks and driveways. From the time you leave your truck to the house you almost get frostbitten because you can't really dress properly for inside and outside,” Mertz said.

Dianne Kowalski, 48, a South Hills mother of two, echoed his frustration.

“We're ready for spring. We've had too many two-hour delays,” she said, referring to the weather-related problems that have kept school buses running late more often than not.

Barbara Mayes Boustead, a National Weather Service Meteorologist in Omaha and Hilberg's partner in the two-year effort to establish the winter weather index, said it uses a combination of accumulated and daily snowfall and daily high and low temperatures to calculate the severity of winter weather, but exempts wind chill and ice storms.

Even so, the results are chilling.

“This is actually ranked as one of the most severe winters across a number of areas, with Detroit and Chicago getting the worst of it, but everywhere in the Midwest and Great Lakes it's really hard to find a winter that's not worse than average,” she said.

“I personally would call this a misery index.”

Frank Large, deputy chief of Pittsburgh's fire department, won't disagree. He said the cold is taking a toll on firefighters, “slipping on ice, trudging through the snow.”

“Falls are a real problem because, obviously, we are spraying water all over the place and it freezes, so footing is always an issue. We try to be proactive with salt trucks, and Public Works is very good about it.

“You're prone to have more fires in the winter because more people are inside for longer periods of time because it's darker longer,” he said.

Even so, Pittsburgh has nothing on Detroit.

Beset by bankruptcy blues, the Motor City, with 6½ feet of snow and more than 100 days of subzero temperatures, is struggling through its worst winter since 1950, according to the index. Pittsburgh is in the midst of its 13th-worst winter in that time.

Chicago, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Moline, Ill., are enduring their third-most extreme winters, and New York, Milwaukee and Duluth, Minn., their fourth-harshest winters.

And it's not over yet.

A blast of Arctic air sweeping in this week is likely to push the misery index numbers even higher, Boustead said.

Richard Gassner, 72, of Elizabeth Township knows he'll be out shoveling snow again soon.

“Every time I turn around I'm out clearing my driveway. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Come July, we'll be wishing for the cold,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or Staff writer Michael Hasch and The Associated Press contributed.




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