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Storm rips Mon Valley with high wind, blinding rains

| Thursday, March 24, 2011

The violent storm that ripped through the region yesterday caused widespread damage throughout the Mon Valley.

High winds, lightning, and blinding rain caused power outages, toppled trees and extensive building and property damage.

It appears the worst of the storm, however, spared the Valley, as a reported tornado ravaged neighborhoods in Hempfield and Sewickley townships in Westmoreland County.

The massive funnel cloud left a path of destruction that reportedly damaged 90 homes, including 30 that were destroyed.

Terry Planton, of Speers, was traveling home from work on Route 66 near Verona Road when thick clouds appeared in the sky.

"The sky started to get a green tint and hail started hitting the roof of the car," said Planton, who was traveling with business partners Ed Woytovich and Dan Restivo. "Then the clouds started funneling up and spiraling."

Planton said he watched in awe as a funnel cloud hit the ground. He said what appeared to be a tornado was only about a mile from the highway.

"When it came back up, it was carrying debris. I saw parts of a roof inside it," he said.

While other motorists were pulling their vehicles over to snap photographs, Planton said he and his colleagues knew they were in a dangerous situation.

"The tornado was pacing us," Planton said. "It was going back and forth."

Bob Reed, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, said a team will assess damage today and determine if the area was hit by a tornado.

Reed said several lines of weather, including a cold front, moved through the region, causing winds in excess of 50 mph, blinding rain and golf ball-sized hail.

He said the storm made its way into the region around 4 p.m. The funnel cloud was reported in Hempfield Township about 4:45 p.m.

"We had reports coming in from everywhere with damage," Reed said. "We have a lot of videos and photos to survey, it's just amazing."

Rostraver damage

In Rostraver Township, numerous reports of downed trees and damaged property kept emergency crews busy.

As black skies shaded Todd Farm Road in Rostraver, Michael Swan went onto his sister's back porch to see how windy it was.

"The wind was blowing so hard I immediately came back inside," Swan said. "I looked up at the clouds, and the sky was actually spinning.

"I heard this roar. That's when all hell broke lose."

As Swan told his nieces to go to the basement for safety, he saw a patio table in the backyard fly into the air.

A camper trailer flipped onto its side.

"It only lasted for a few seconds, but it was violent," he said.

When Swan went out to survey the damage, he saw live wires and trees covering the road and yards of neighbors' homes.

His sister, Karen Conklin, saw the Anden Auto office at 331 Pine Valley Road flip onto a car.

Rostraver Township police Chief Greg Resetar said there were numerous reports of trees uprooted and blocking roads.

Among the roads affected were Broad Avenue, Indian Hill Road, Tyrol Boulevard, Todd Farm Road, Leeper Road, Routes 201 and 51, and Porter and Mt. Pleasant roads.

"We got reports of large shingles off of roofs and trampolines 20-feet in the air," Resetar said. "It was nasty."

Widespread power outages

The storms caused power outages through the Valley.

Charleroi Area School District Superintendent Dr. Brad Ferko said classes were canceled today because its Fallowfield Township campus remained without power this morning.

The outage affected the telephone systems, electronically operated restroom facilities and computers.

"We tried everything within our power to get this day in, but we couldn't," Ferko said.

Ferko said the district will use two days from a scheduled spring break to make up for today and a previous snow day.

The superintendent said he expected power to be restored in time to conduct classes Friday. Families in the district will be notified if classes are canceled Friday.

During the peak of the storm, West Penn Power reported that nearly 13,000 customers in Westmoreland County were without power, as were thousands in Washington and Fayette counties.

"There was a steady stream of lightning that came through the area. Combined with the high winds, we had a lot of damage," West Penn Power spokesman Allen Staggers said.

He said 280 extra workers were called to the region to help restore power.

As of presstime, 1,838 customers lacked power in Westmoreland county, 1,887 in Washington, 2,315 in Fayette, and 231 in Allegheny. Among the communities affected: Charleroi, Fallowfield Township, Rostraver Township, Monongahela, Forward Township, Smithton and Perryopolis

Several businesses in Monessen's Eastgate section lost power for about eight hours.

Damage in Charleroi

Model Cleaners President John LaCarte said he had just left the company's plant in Charleroi when he received a telephone call instructing him to return to the site next to the football stadium.

The storm ripped a 6,000 square foot section of the roof off the building, affecting the industrial uniform division. The retail division was not affected, LaCarte said.

A crew was working at the time, but no one was injured, said LaCarte, adding a rear garage door was pushed in by the heavy wind.

Workers toiled through the night to secure the building. They placed a tarp over a large hole in the roof.

"Given the circumstances, things could have been a lot worse," LaCarte said. "Compared to what you're seeing on the news and in Japan, this is nothing."

Chuckling, LaCarte added, "We do need a new roof though."

Speers bridge damaged

In neighboring lower Speers, Charleroi firefighters had to close state Route 88 about 7 p.m. after portions of a railroad bridge fell onto the highway.

PennDOT crews assisted railroad employees in removing debris. Traffic was detoured for about an hour.

The contractor for the Donora-Monessen Bridge project was called in to secure a tarp that was flapping in the wind.

Damage in Carroll

Carroll Township police Chief Paul Brand said the storm downed trees, blocking portions of Route 88, Shannon Road and Route 481.

Fire department personnel quickly cut and removed the trees.

"PennDOT was notified, but they were so busy," Brand said. "Our road department had to be notified to clear several township roads."

The fast-moving storms also destroyed a barn on Shannon Road.

No injuries were reported in the affected Valley communities.

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