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Snowstorm touches 'primal' fears

| Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010

The prospect of spending a snowy Super Bowl weekend without milk, bread, chips and salsa drove some shoppers to snake two or three carts at a time through packed checkout lines and grocery store parking lots Friday.

"We were definitely planning for significant panic-type buying," said Paul Abbott, manager at the Market District Giant Eagle in Bethel Park, where the lines were 20-deep. "And that's exactly what we're seeing."

The huge snowstorm blew into the mid-Atlantic with predictions of a record 30 inches or more for the nation's capital, and authorities warned the region's second snowstorm in less than two months could be "extremely dangerous," with heavy, wet snow and strong winds that could knock out power. Snow began falling around noon.

Across Pennsylvania, crews salted thousands of miles of roads, and schools and some government offices dismissed early. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency said it was communicating with counties via electronic message boards and conference calls to marshal resources if local officials reported problems. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission said travelers could get real-time roadway and weather information by calling toll-free 866-976-TRIP (8747).

"We've got more than 2,200 trucks, plows and salt spreaders that are available all around the state," PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said.

Nevertheless, road crews were having trouble keeping up with all the snow.

PennDOT said portions of the Parkway West inbound, the Parkway North outbound and Route 19 in both directions were closed after several accidents. The Port Authority ordered all of its drivers to pull to the side of the road shortly after 9 p.m. because of "worsening and very dangerous conditions," spokesman Jim Ritchie said.

Allegheny Power was reporting more than 6,800 customers without power last night. Some 4,000 Duquesne Light customers in Beaver and Allegheny counties also were without service.

Predictions of up to 12 inches of snow for the Pittsburgh area -- and up to two feet in cities to the south and east -- hit a nerve of fear in people accustomed to images of disaster as TV news devote teams of reporters to storms, and government agencies and schools announce early closures.

"There's no doubt that there is a very deep, primal thing that awakens in people when there's an impending storm and the skies darken," said Fred Gadomski, a meteorologist at Penn State University. "People hear weather forecasters today, and I think they tap into that same primal instinct to seek shelter and ride out the storm."

Fear of a huge snowstorm is more "exaggerated reaction" than full-blown phobia, said Dr. P.V. Nickell, chairman of the psychiatry department at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side.

"Since 9/11, there's heightened coverage of disaster stories," Nickell said. "In our parents' day, we might have had a picture in the paper a few days after a disaster. Now, we have high-definition, color images on 24/7 television news. It sensitizes us to it and shows us what can happen."

Nickell, vacationing Friday in Tampa, Fla., said those who rush to grocery stores are overreacting to the thought of losing what they have.

"We may have, in our land of plenty, gotten a little too used to our comforts and conveniences," he said. "You don't need to stop and get 13 gallons of milk and toilet paper for a one-day storm event."

Patty Sutton of Green Tree said she knows plunging into a storm-driven shopping trip doesn't make sense. Yet she joined scores of others for a milk-and-bread run at the Kuhn's Market in Banksville.

"When I was growing up, we had snow constantly, and no one seemed to mind or panic," said Sutton, 48, a mother of three. "I don't know what happened. People get fixated on what the TV forecasters are saying."

Weather forecasters provide crucial predictions to help people prepare, not to grab ratings, said Anthony Moretti, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Point Park University, Downtown.

"The No. 1 reason why people watch local news is for weather," said Moretti, a former associate producer for two Columbus, Ohio, TV stations. "I don't think there is a conscious effort to pander to the ratings. It's about their responsibility to tell you about the most important thing that is happening in your town. Weather cuts across all of us."

Pat Herald, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Moon, said the last time a foot of snow fell in a 24-hour period in Pittsburgh was Jan. 4, 1994.

The year before, Pittsburgh recorded one of its largest snowfalls with 24 inches of snow that closed highways. The largest recorded snowfall in Pittsburgh was 27.4 inches from November 24-26, 1950.

The weather service issued a winter storm warning through 6 p.m. today. Even before snow accumulated, Pittsburgh International Airport felt some impact. De-icing planes causes delays, and airlines canceled some flights to and from Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Between 50 and 100 crew members were ready to remove snow and treat runways, said airport spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny.

"We are prepared for a storm of this magnitude," Jenny said. "The airport will remain open."

Evening activities were canceled at school districts including Pine-Richland, Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park, South Fayette and Butler Area. The Community College of Allegheny County and Duquesne University closed campuses at 3 p.m. The IRS canceled special Saturday hours for tax assistance in the Downtown office.

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