WILKES-BARRE TWP. — A representative from the National Weather Service has confirmed a tornado touched down along Mundy Street, severely damaging several commercial shopping buildings that will likely be demolished.
“It was a tornado,” said NWS representative Dave Nicosia at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Nicosia said the size of the tornado and estimated wind speeds will be known once their review of damage is completed.
Roofs were torn from U-Haul, Kurlancheek Home Furnishings and Ashley Furniture along Mundy Street, Panera Bread and Game Stop in Wilkes-Barre Township Commons, and the building that houses Barnes and Noble in Arena Hub Shopping Center.
Other buildings in the area sustained little to no damage, including the Wyoming Valley Mall.
U-Haul box trucks were destroyed with pieces being flown hundreds of yards away at at least 50 vehicles at Ken Pollock Nissan were damaged.
Township Police Chief Ron Smith, who is also the township emergency management coordinator, said a piece of the Dick’s Sporting Goods sign, was found several miles away in Bear Creek Township.
Luzerne County Manager Dave Pedri said 27 businesses are known to be damaged.
A propane tank at U-Haul began venting its gas after the storm resulting in a strong and dangerous odor in the area.
Smith said the tank holds 1,000 gallons of liquid propane.
The dangerous situation created by the propane odor caused police to evacuate the mall’s parking lot, which quickly filled Thursday morning by employees the area and sightseers.
“We had police evacuate that lot when the wind direction shifted causing the propane odor toward the mall,” Smith said.
Smith said immediately after the storm and damage assessments were in the initial phase, Dick’s Sporting Goods in the Arena Hub Center secured firearms and ammunition, and pets for sale at two pet stores were safely removed.
“There are many buildings that sustained some damage and there are some buildings that sustained significant damage,” Smith said. “We’re very fortunate that there were no serious injuries. Panera Bread’s roof and those stores, there roofs are gone while other roofs got minimal damage.”
Township Mayor Carl Kuren and state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said there were six minor injuries Wednesday night.
“Fortunately if this was one hour earlier, there would had been more casualties,” Kuren said. “I’ve never seen this ever before in my life.”
The storm hit the area at about 10 p.m., about one hour after most stores close.
Most of the damage was concentrated along Mundy Street from Highland Park Boulevard to the entrance to the Arena Hub shopping center.
While Ashley Furniture lost its roof, a flower tent in the parking lot remained intact, including flower pots hanging from racks.
Smith said a porta-potty at the flower tent disappeared.
Across the street from the devastation at Ashley Furniture, there was no visible damage to Smokey Bones restaurant.
Crews from UGI Utilities, Verizon and PPL lined Mundy Street and began making repairs first thing Thursday.
A PPL representative who briefed store managers said nearly 20 to 25 utility poles and multiple transformers were damaged during the storm.
Crews were replacing damaged utility poles at the same time a new main electrical transmission line was being laid along Mundy Street, the PPL representative said.
He estimated power to be restored by Friday afternoon at the earliest.
Dom Brominski, director of marketing for UGI Utilities, said crews were checking for any natural gas leaks.
“We have survey crews driving all over our lines and not detecting any gas leaks at this point,” Brominski said. “Our system is tight and safe.
Brominski said UGI crews were in the area immediately inspecting and shutting off natural gas lines within one hour of the storm.
Stan Davis, information officer for the Keystone Incident Management Team that works when natural disasters occur, said all commercial buildings will need to be inspected by an engineer to determine if they are safe to reopen to the public.
Kuren said the mall has its own electrical transmission line that was turned off due to the propane issue at U-Haul. The mayor said the mall’s electrical system will likely be turned on once the propane stops venting.
For more on Wednesday’s tornado, click here.