WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Several commercial shopping buildings were damaged beyond repair while other structures and restaurants sustained little to no damage during a violent storm that swept through the area Wednesday night.
Dave Nicosia, from the National Weather Service in Binghamton, N.Y., confirmed that a high-end EF2 tornado, with wind speeds of 130 mph, struck the Mundy Street commercial district at about 10 p.m.
Tornado warnings were issued for the area about 15 minutes before the twister touched down, Nicosia said.
A take-shelter text alert went out to local cellphones at 9:55 p.m., or about 5 minutes before touch-down.
Nicosia said the tornado touched down near the La-Z-Boy furniture store at Mundy Street and Highland Park Boulevard and continued for three-quarters of a mile ending near Interstate 81 behind Dick’s Sporting Goods in the Arena Hub Plaza. He estimated the tornado was on the ground for about five minutes.
The path of the tornado is evident as it left a trail of destruction with roofs blown off U-Haul, Kurlancheek Home Furnishings, Ashley Furniture/Country Junction, and the commercial building that houses Panera Bread, Game Stop and other businesses in the Wilkes-Barre Township Commons.
“This area does get tornadoes,” Nicosia said. “People think we don’t but we do. In my career, this was one of the worst for the area.”
Windshields were smashed on new vehicles at the Ken Pollock dealership across from La-Z-Boy, U-Haul sustained unrepairable damage to two of their buildings and numerous box trucks, and Ashley Furniture/Country Junction, which rebuilt after a devastating fire on Thanksgiving 2008, had its roof ripped off.
A PPL representative said 20 to 25 utility poles were knocked down or damaged and have to be replaced, including a new transmission line in attempts to restore electrical service.
Six people sustained minor injuries, officials said.
“Had the storm happened during rush hour or an hour earlier, the damage and injuries could have been a lot worse,” Red Cross Executive Director Bill Goldsworthy said.
Township Mayor Carl Kuren agreed.
“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 after most stores closed at 9 p.m.
While Ashley Furniture/Country Junction lost its roof, a flower tent in the parking lot remained intact, including flower pots hanging from racks. Smokey Bones restaurant, across from Ashley Furniture, sustained minimal damage to its facade. Ketchup and barbecue sauce remained on the tables in the restaurant.
Firearms, saving pets
Township Police Chief Ron Smith said as soon as the storm passed, officials acted quickly to secure firearms and ammunition at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Pets at PETCO in Wilkes-Barre Township Commons and PetSmart in Arena Hub Plaza were evacuated to safety, Smith said.
Smith said a section of a Dick’s sign was located several miles away in Bear Creek Township.
Camp counselors at Bear Creek Camp in Bear Creek Township, about 7 miles from Dick’s, located a piece of the sign on their trails.
A major concern for first responders was the venting of propane at U-Haul.
Smith said the tank that was filled with 1,000 gallons of liquid propane began venting for unknown reasons, resulting in a strong and dangerous odor in the area. As the wind shifted direction, police evacuated the parking lot of the Wyoming Valley Mall outside JC Penney where employees and sightseers gathered to observe the destruction.
“We had police evacuate that lot when the wind direction shifted, causing the propane odor toward the mall,” Smith said. Smith also is the township’s emergency management coordinator.
Utility crews hit the area first thing Thursday morning, accessing and repairing the damage.
Mundy Street, which is usually bumper-to-bumper traffic, was closed to traffic as vehicles were replaced with utility trucks.
Stan Davis, information officer for the Keystone Incident Management Team that is working with the Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency, said all commercial buildings will need to be inspected by an engineer to determine if they are safe to reopen, repair or should be demolished.
There was no visible damage to the Wyoming Valley Mall, which was closed Thursday due to electrical service being turned off due to the propane odor.
Kuren said the mall has its own electrical transmission line and is expected to be turned back on Friday. The mayor said he was unable to put a number on the employees out of work at all the businesses due to the destruction.
“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, their roofs are gone while other roofs got minimal damage.”
Lucy Morgan, Luzerne County emergency management director, said there were no other reports of damage in the county.
For more on Wednesday’s tornado, click here.