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Pittsburgh gets brutally cold weather and black ice for Christmas

Julia Zenkevich
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh will get little to no snow this holiday season. A warm front coming from the Gulf of Mexico means the brunt of the so-called "bomb cyclone" forecasted to blanket other parts of the U.S. will largely miss western Pennsylvania. But that doesn't mean Pittsburghers are in the clear this weekend.

The cold weather coming down from central Canada, coupled with wind bursts of up to 60 mph, will result in wind chill levels as low as -20 degrees on Friday and -10 degrees on Christmas Eve. Therefore, any rain and the little snow that does fall in western Pennsylvania will freeze on roadways.

"Black ice is going to be a significant issue that people need to pay attention to," said Lee Hendricks, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Pittsburgh office. "Also, with these winds, driving a high-profile vehicle will certainly push you around a bit."

Though it's best to stay home, Hendricks advises that if people must travel, they should try to drive a shorter car and leave the SUV or box truck in the garage: Winds are more likely to blow taller vehicles off the road. Travelers should pack their vehicles with emergency supplies such as blankets, flashlights, food and medications.

"Make sure your cell phone is charged in case you get in any trouble on the roads," said Hendricks. "Always take your time, and give yourself more time to get somewhere than you normally would. Don't hurry."

The Allegheny County Public Works Department says it will deploy 33 salt trucks starting at 3 a.m. on Friday: "Pretreating our roads prior to the quick drop in temperature tomorrow is not an option because the rain [Thursday and early Friday] would wash away any salt that we place."

The department warns that rapidly dropping temperatures will create slick spots on roads — particularly bridges, ramps and overpasses. Likewise, The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation notes that with freezing temperatures, roads that look wet may actually be icy: “Extra caution is needed when approaching bridges and highway ramps where ice can form without warning.”

Pittsburgh Regional Transit also warned bus and train riders to expect delays and plan for trips to take more time than usual, depending on the severity of the weather. PRT said its crews will treat busways and rail station platforms with salt and will equip railcars with sleet cutters to shave ice from the overhead lines that power the cars.

Still, they cautioned that freezing temperatures can damage the rails, causing delays. Buses will remain on main roads if weather conditions make side or smaller streets impassible, they said. Service updates will be posted on Twitter at @pghtransitalert. Riders also may find information about the status of PRT routes by calling 412-442-2000, on Twitter @pghtransitcare, or checking

Additional precautions

Due to the high winds, Pittsburghers should consider bringing patio furniture or garbage cans inside, or tying them down. Otherwise, these items might blow around, which is potentially dangerous.

Also, don't leave pets outdoors. If that's not possible, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization Animals Friends offers this list to keep pets safe: Use a car mat or rug as a flag for a doghouse door, make sure shelters are free of cracks or holes, and inspect a pet's paws and tail for frostbite. Pennsylvania State Police also remind people that pets can't consume frozen food and water; failing to provide for these basic needs could result in animal-cruelty charges.

"Animals need just as much water in the winter as they do in the summer for their bodies to process food and help keep the natural metabolism working," said Cpl. Michael Spada, an animal-cruelty officer in the state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

People also should keep an eye on their water pipes this weekend. Pennsylvania American Water recommends allowing a small trickle of water to run overnight to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting. If they do freeze, shut off the water immediately.

Emergency service professionals remind people not to use generators, grills or any other type of burning device — such as a camp stove — inside a house, garage or enclosed area. Cooking stoves should never be used for heat.

And during outages, Pittsburghers should check on their older neighbors. The head of the Allegheny County Department of Humans Services notes that a lack of electricity means that vital medical equipment, including oxygen systems and stair glides, won't work.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.