Tornado touches down in Uniontown; officials evaluating damage
A rare February tornado with wind gusts up to 105 mph tore a path of destruction through part of Uniontown Thursday night, ripping roofs from homes and businesses, toppling trees and leaving debris strewn in the streets.
Based on the tornado's path of damage and the circular path of the debris field, National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Fred McMullen determined it was an F1 tornado and not straight-line winds, said Lee Hendricks, a weather service meteorologist.
"It looked bad last night. But then, when the sun came up this morning, it was like 'wow,'" said Uniontown Fire Chief Buck Griffith.
It was the first time since 1950 that a tornado struck in the Pittsburgh region in February, and it is unusual that the tornado struck in an urban area, Hendricks said.
"Where else on Earth would it happen but here?" Griffith said.
Residents and business owners in the North Gallatin Avenue area and along many side streets cleaned up their properties Friday and covered their roofs with tarps to keep the elements out. Several structures, including Gallatin Plumbing Supply Co., were destroyed, according to Mayor Ed Fike.
"I was out there all night, and it was almost like a tunnel when it came down over Connellsville Street," he said. "Everything in its path, it either tore up or uprooted."
There was no saving Mark Thomas' car. He had recently taken his BMW 745 LI out of storage to finish a paint job and parked it in his Lenox Street backyard. On Thursday night, a large tree snapped and fell on the car he's had for 10 years.
"I heard an airplane coming through my roof," he said of the tornado's sound. "The whole house shook. This thing lasted like 45 seconds."
Powerful winds ripped the siding from part of his home, and his shed is missing.
"I looked everywhere, it's just gone. A shed," Thomas said.
Across the street, Earl Wright picked up debris in his yard with help from family.
"I thought I've seen everything, but this is totally different," he said.
The first calls for help came in at about 7 p.m. Thursday, Griffith said. A building already being demolished collapsed on Morgantown Street, he said.
"They heard the wind blowing real hard and some of the pictures were blowing off the walls in the station because we had the windows open," he said. "They said it sounded like a train coming down the street."
Firefighters worked through the night and into Friday morning to rescue about five people trapped in their houses or cars. One person had minor injuries after being struck by a door, Griffith said. Temporary shelters opened Thursday night, but no one came, he said.
State, county and local emergency management agencies conducted damage assessments Friday. Power was restored to hundreds of homes, but classes were canceled at Laurel Highlands High School because the electricity was out.
Uniontown Emergency Management Coordinator Greg Crossley on Friday didn't have an estimate of the number of structures damaged. Griffith estimated that the tornado traveled about three-quarters of a mile. Damage appears to start near the high school and continue to Pittsburgh Street, he said.
"This is the worst I've ever seen in our town," Crossley said.
At least one eyewitness told the National Weather Service they saw a funnel cloud touch the ground, meteorologist Alicia Miller said. The damage was mostly contained to the north and east sides of the city, between Connellsville and Pittsburgh streets, Crossley said.
Some parishioners hunkered down at Solid Rock Ministry on Millview Street. Valerie Hall, the pastor's wife, said about 10 people were there Thursday night for a monthly movie event when the storm blew through.
"It was just chaos, you could hear the noises and people outside screaming," Hall said. "It sounded like a bomb dropping. The building shook. It just felt like a freight train going through the building."
The church's roof, like many in the neighborhood, was damaged, as were a fence and storage building on the property.
"I'd just like to know how they're going to help these people," she said.
Assessing the damage is the first part to determine whether property owners may be able to apply to the Small Business Administration for low-interest loans, Crossley said. The mayor issued a disaster declaration.
Churches and other community groups rallied to provide aid to those who need it, Fike said.
"When you're down, that's when the tough get going, and that's what we intend to do," he said. "We're going to put our city back in place, you can count on that."
Renatta Signorini, Jacob Tierney and Joe Napsha are Tribune-Review staff writers.