After surveying wind-damaged parts of Ligonier and Fairfield townships Saturday, the National Weather Service confirmed what had became obvious to Steve Pelesky and his family Friday evening as they hunkered down in their home's basement.
The storm that tore the roof off their two-century-old stone house --and damaged about 75 other homes and businesses -- was in fact a tornado.
Police and emergency management officials reported that no one was injured by the EF1 tornado, which uprooted trees and damaged structures in areas that included the Oakwood Hills housing plan and the villages of Oak Grove and Wilpin in Ligonier, and the area around Antiochian camp and conference center in Fairfield Township. EF1 is the second-weakest category of tornadoes, with winds from 86 to 110 mph.
Friday's tornado had an estimated maximum wind speed of 105 mph and a maximum width of 300 yards, said Weather Service meteorologist Fred McMullen. It traveled north-northeastward on a sporadic 8-mile path, he said.
Officials said advance warning -- tornado watches were issued by 1:30 p.m., and a tornado warning was posted at 5:15 p.m. -- along with residents' quick reactions may have helped avert a tragedy.
"People took the necessary actions. They went to their basements," Mr. McMullen said during a 2 p.m. news conference in the Ligonier municipal building. "That's good to see."
He said that despite its areas of hilly terrain, Westmoreland County has experienced the second-highest number of tornadoes of any county in Pennsylvania after Crawford County. Friday's tornado was the 37th recorded in the county since 1800, the Weather Service said.
Daniel Stevens, deputy emergency management coordinator for Westmoreland County, said extra police would be on patrol in the coming days to protect property. He had a warning for anyone tempted to steal from damaged homes: "You will go to jail."
He also urged property owners to avoid injury by using care in removing debris and said they should be cautious if approached by those claiming to be contractors who could remove debris or repair damage. Property owners should verify that such people are legitimate and never pay in advance for work, he said.
Mr. Stevens said "maybe two or three" of the structures incurred major damage and the impact to some was as limited as shingles torn off or windows damaged.
But the storm's fury was clear from uprooted and sheared off trees, including trees in excess of 50 feet tall, that stretched across the lawn near Mr. Pelesky's Robb Road home in Ligonier, which the county said was rendered uninhabitable.
At about 5:30 p.m. Friday, he was in the kitchen; his wife, Tracey, and boys Cole, 4, and Connor, 2, were in the living room.
"My wife came into the kitchen and said the trees were starting to lay over, and she said, 'We need to get to the basement, we got a tornado.' "
He said he heard a loud whistling sound and then, once in the basement, "we could hear banging and blowing for about 30 seconds, if that, and then we came up and this is what we saw," he said, pointing to his roofless home. He said his first reaction was simple: shock. But he also was grateful that he and his family were safe.
"This stuff can be fixed," he said. "We're all fine."
Other damage included up to 25 cars at the Town & Country Ford dealership in Ligonier.weather - neigh_westmoreland
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