How to stay warm, safe and savvy during the polar vortex in Pittsburgh

It’s going to feel like -20. Here’s what you need to know.

cold pittsburgh
WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
colin-square-crop

On the heels of a blizzard that wasn’t this month, you may be more willing than normal to disregard winter weather warnings from media and officials. Please reconsider.

What is headed our way this week is, simply put, potentially deadly cold.

It’s the coldest weather Pittsburgh’s seen in decades. Metro temperatures will struggle to make it out of the single digits today and tomorrow and will remain bitterly cold into Friday.

Today will see a high of 8 degrees and a low of -3 degrees, making Pittsburgh as cold as Mount Everest, the South Pole and Siberia. Wind chills will be colder than minus 20. Pittsburgh Public Schools are closed in response. Thursday will see a high of 9 and a low of -7. Friday will hit 23 and drop to 16. As National Weather Service Meteorologist Lee Hendricks put it, “Mother Nature is going to put the hate on us.”

All of this brings serious risks of exposure for humans and animals alike.

So here’s what you need to know to stay safe if you’re a straphanger, a homeowner, a tenant, a pet owner or a person drawn to frozen bodies of water.

Where to warm up

These are frostbite temperatures.

With wind chills colder than minus 20 today, frostbite could set in in less than 30 minutes.

Several Citiparks recreation centers and senior Healthy Active Living centers will double as warming centers this week.

The Magee, West Penn, Brookline and Phillips Community Recreation Centers will be open until 9 p.m., and the Jefferson, Ammon, Paulson, Ormsby and Warrington centers are until 8 p.m. (Locations are listed here.)

Senior centers that typically close at 4 p.m. will stay open until 9 p.m. today and tomorrow. They include the following locations:

  • Greenfield: 745 Greenfield Ave.
  • Homewood: 7321 Frankstown Ave.
  • Sheraden: 720 Sherwood Ave.
  • South Side: 12th & Bingham St.

Check on older Pittsburghers

The National Institute on Aging says older adults can lose body heat faster than when they were young and that the risk of hypothermia is particularly high for that demographic.

Laura Poskin, director of United for Seniors & Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, suggested checking in on older loved ones and neighbors. Poskin said in Allegheny County nearly half of adults over the age of 75 live alone.

She suggested two phone numbers to have at the ready: United Way’s PA 2-1-1, a 24/7 call center for everyday needs and crisis situations, and SeniorLine, the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging’s information and assistance line.

Poskin also warned of heightened risks for slips and falls. Rock salt does not melt ice at negative 5-degree temperatures and below.

People without homes

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council says 700 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness die from hypothermia annually in the United States.

In Pittsburgh, city officials say police and EMS will be on the lookout for people without homes on the street with instructions to advise them on shelter options. Emergency dispatchers have also been briefed on available shelters.

Pittsburgh Police will be checking on those experiencing homelessness. Low barrier, Downtown resources are listed below. A more complete list of free resources for people in need can be found at www.bigburgh.com.

  • Downtown Low Barrier Shelter, Smithfield United Church of Christ, 620 Smithfield St., will have extended hours this week from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. Monday through Friday and 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
  • Catholic Charities Day/Warming Program, 212 Ninth St., will have regular hours, 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
  • Wellspring Drop In Center, 903 Watson St., will have regular hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Susan Rauscher, executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, told The Incline, “As you can imagine, we have been full in recent days and plan to be at capacity in the coming days.” Rauscher added, “We have been reaching out for donations of warm outer clothing, blankets, instant oatmeal, breakfast bars, etc. We can always use volunteers, as well.”

Here’s more on how you can help Pittsburghers who are homeless anytime of the year.

Potential water woes

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s “winter weather tips” include disconnecting and draining outdoor hoses, insulating/wrapping pipes in unheated attics or garages, locating your master shutoff valve in case a pipe bursts and allowing taps to drip a “small continuous stream” to avoid breaks. More on protecting your pipes here.

Water main breaks are also more likely during extreme changes in temperature.

Impacted customers will be notified of main breaks via robocalls, PWSA said. PWSA will also be posting updates on Twitter (@pgh2o) and its webpage (www.pgh2o.com). Customers can also call PWSA emergency dispatchers at 412-255-2423. Dispatchers are available 24/7.

Pennsylvania American Water customers can call 1-800-565-7292 in an emergency.

PWSA spokesperson Will Pickering said of this week’s projected cold snap: “Due to the extremely low forecast temps, we’re adding additional shifts of PWSA digging and repair crews. […] Our urgent repair contractor is prepared to address breaks that we cannot handle with our existing staff.”

Tenants

Landlords don’t get to decide how warm your rental home or apartment should be.

In Allegheny County, rental homes and apartments must be kept at a minimum temperature of at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit when the outside temperature is 10 degrees or above and no less than 61 degrees if it’s 10 or below.

If your rental isn’t as warm as it should be, we talked to landlord/tenant attorneys to find out what you should do.

On a related note: Fire officials urge everyone to be careful using space heaters and to never use appliances like ovens to heat their homes. If you are using space heaters, be sure not to run them near furniture or window dressings that could catch fire.

Public transit 

Port Authority of Allegheny County spokesperson Adam Brandolph said while the cold won’t really affect busses or vehicles, additional hands will be on deck in case of any snow-related delays.

Brandolph urged riders to use Port Authority’s real-time services — PortAuthority.org or truetime-to-text feature — to get live vehicle location information.

“That way they know when the bus or rail car will be at their stop and they can plan their trip better without having to wait out in the cold,” he explained.

Animals

Pittsburgh animal control officers will be on the lookout for animals left in the cold this week. If an owner cannot be located, “We will not allow the animal to be out,” Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich told reporters Monday.

The American Veterinary Medical Association says, “Like people, cats and dogs are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia and should be kept inside.”

Signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2017, Libre’s Law makes it illegal for pets to be tied up outdoors for more than 30 minutes when temperatures are above 90 or below 32 degrees. Even first-time offenders could face felony charges if the animal suffers severe bodily injury or death as a result.

Oh, and stay off the rivers

City officials are urging everyone to stay off of Pittsburgh’s frozen or semi-frozen rivers, in case you were considering it.

“We have in the past had individuals try to walk across the river,” Hissrich said Monday. “We caution you, please don’t try.”

Water Rescue will have an air boat ready to deploy in case someone decides to try it anyway.

Meanwhile, a more impolite version of Hissrich’s plea could be: Safety officials will have enough to worry about this week. Don’t be an idiot.