Tornado damage in Westmoreland County reaches $4 million

30 Hempfield homes destroyed as twister travels 7-mile path



As residents surveyed the damage to their battered homes Thursday, the National Weather Service confirmed that it was a tornado with wind speeds up to 120 mph that carved a 300-yard-wide swath of damage through part of Westmoreland County.

But even amid the destruction -- felled trees several stories high, homes ripped from their foundations -- emergency officials said that the damage in Hempfield and Sewickley townships did not warrant a state emergency declaration. Officials said that affected residents and business owners likely would not qualify for federal disaster relief because most of them carry insurance.

Dan Stevens, spokesman for the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety, said he estimated damage totaled at least $4.5 million, based on a previous estimate that 30 homes were destroyed and an additional 60 were damaged to some degree.

But emergency officials from the state and county who surveyed the damage had not encountered a single uninsured homeowner, Mr. Stevens said. It's one of the primary factors that federal disaster officials look at when they're determining whether a storm warrants federal help.

In that sense, the county had fared well with this storm.

"We just had one of the worst storms that we had in our county. ... now these people are going to actually be able to fix their homes because they have insurance," he said.

PG VIDEO: OFFICIALS ASSESS DAMAGE

Hempfield declared an emergency less than two hours after the tornado hit. Mr. Stevens said that if nearby Sewickley Township decided to make an emergency declaration, the county would likely follow suit. The declaration would allow agencies to bypass certain bidding requirements to hire contractors more quickly.

State and local officials fanned out to assess the damage. Mr. Stevens anticipated they would complete their assessment by today and he estimated that the county's initial tally of 90 damaged homes "is probably going to grow."

National Weather Service meteorologists determined that the tornado was an EF-2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures the ferocity of twisters from a scale of EF 0, being the weakest, to EF 5, being the strongest. Based on the damage, they estimated wind speeds reached 120 mph. It traveled a path between six and seven miles long.

Many streets remained closed because heavy debris, including pieces of siding, uprooted trees and snapped-off utility poles, made them impassable.

On several of the most heavily-hit streets, such as Fosterville Road in Fort Allen, homeowners were out Thursday collecting debris from smashed fences, roofs, backyard playsets and sheds, as representatives from insurance companies processed claims and utility workers tried to repair power lines. At noon, about 3,300 homes were without power in Westmoreland County.

Kurt Ferguson, township manager in Hempfield, where the damage was concentrated mostly in the Fort Allen area, said it will take several days to get a handle on the full extent of the destruction.

Officials set up a shelter at the Hempfield municipal building for those who lost their homes or otherwise needed shelter because their houses were open to the elements. The Red Cross was providing meals there and in the neighborhoods where the tornado hit.

Mr. Ferguson said an initial review did not indicate "significant" damage to public property other than the roof at Hempfield Area High School, part of which was torn away in the storm. The school was closed Thursday.

The storm brought out the good and bad in people, apparently. Officials from a local Home Depot called Mr. Ferguson to ask if the store should stay open later to accommodate the township's needs and donated plywood, tarps and other material to workers trying to make emergency repairs and provide shelter for people.

On the other hand, officials called in extra state police and five auxiliary sheriff's deputies after receiving reports of looters combing through the debris. Mr. Ferguson said he had not heard of any arrests.

Typical of a tornado's aftermath, the damage was isolated and sporadic. On some blocks, homes untouched stood just a few doors down from ones that had been reduced to rubble.

Felicia Dillies, who had yet to move in to the home she'd purchased with her husband, Jason, on Fosterville Road, wondered why her house had fallen into the path of the tornado when many neighbors were spared, as she stood in the remains of her kitchen, now just a wooden platform elevated above a jumble of debris in the yard.

It was the couple's first home, and they'd spent days repainting and installing new floors.

"We had every intention of moving in this weekend," said Mrs. Dillies.

The couple had planned to spend the day at the home Wednesday to install new baseboards, which would have put them directly in the tornado's path, but Mr. Dillies worked late the night before so they postponed.

"We just thank God that we were not here and He had a reason and a plan to have us not move in as of yet," said Mrs. Dillies, breathing a sigh of relief.

Across the street, the Dillieses' neighbor, Theresa Marcheleovich, stood in her driveway bundled against the early spring chill, staring at the home she'd lived in for 16 years, now ringed in yellow tape.

When she moved in 16 years ago "it was a shack," but her husband, Richard, had fashioned window molding with rosettes and built new kitchen cabinets.

A day after surviving the tornado, she and her children were banned from their own home because it was declared unstable. She was given just 30 minutes to retrieve bare necessities, so she grabbed medicine and pulled her children's school uniforms, still sopping wet, from the stalled washing machine.

She said she didn't know if the home, which sustained structural damage, could ever be salvaged. She didn't want to think about it.

"I loved everything about that house," she said. "But you can't stop an act of God."

"It was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life."


Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510. First Published March 25, 2011 4:00 AM


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