Uniontown neighborhood working to clean up after tornado rips through area Thursday

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A tornado ripped through Uniontown Thursday evening, damaging dozens of homes and leaving streets littered with full roofs and walls, uprooted trees and downed utility poles.

Two young children and their mother were trapped in a trailer in the area of Reppert Boulevard for about 20 minutes before a family member and a neighbor cleared the wreckage to free them. Doug Vandivner pulled up to his home just moments after the tornado hit, and immediately took action to save his niece, nephew and sister-in-law.

“It was like I got super-human strength, and I just started throwing things” he said. “Thank God me and the neighbor were able to bust the door and get the kids out.”

Once Randi Geelen realized they were trapped, she stood on a refrigerator and waved for help. Six people lived in the trailer.

“For it to actually happen to your family and your home, it’s surreal,” Vandivner said about three hours after the tornado. “I still feel like I’m dreaming. I’m just glad they’re OK.”

Vandivner said they did not have insurance. He stayed with his family in a hotel Thursday night after working until 2 a.m. to repair the damage, and returned again Friday morning. The trailer was covered in tarps Friday afternoon as he and his neighbors drove nails through boards to build a new frame.

“We’re going to do our best to try to rebuild. That’s all we can do,” he said Thursday night. “And even if we can’t, we’ll figure things out. We’re strong. We know how to figure things out.”

The National Weather Service in Pittsburgh sent a storm survey team to gauge the storm’s impact and confirmed Friday afternoon the tornado touched down in the city at about 6:45 p.m. with winds reaching 105 miles per hour. It was categorized as an EF1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, a measure of the strength of tornadoes. EF1 tornadoes produce winds from 86-110 miles per hour.

Meteorologist Matthew Kramar said February tornadoes are very rare.

“This is the one month we had not recorded a tornado since 1950, and now we have,” he said.

The tornado’s path was two miles long and 1/4 mile wide, according to the National Weather Service. The service has recorded 11 tornadoes in Fayette County, including three categorized as EF1.

Between 20 and 25 buildings were significantly damaged by the tornado, said Uniontown Emergency Management Agency coordinator Greg Crossley, after completing an initial assessment with the county and state emergency management agencies. Officials are working to determine whether the storm damage will qualify for Small Business Administration loans, which require at least 25 properties with 40 percent or more uninsured loss. He said many of the homeowners had insurance. Several businesses were also damaged.

States of emergency were declared for the cities of Uniontown and Connellsville. The Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at the East End Community Center at 150 Coolspring Street for anyone displaced by the severe weather.

Fayette County dispatchers processed 500 calls within three hours Thursday night, and kept busy Friday as calls poured in for flooding, according to Fayette County Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Susan Griffith. She advised drivers use extreme caution, especially on roads prone to flooding.

Driving up North Gallatin Avenue Thursday evening just before 10 p.m., Uniontown Mayor Ed Fike reported that Gallatin Avenue and Millview Street had gotten hit particularly hard.

“I’ve been in Uniontown my whole life, but never seen anything like this,” he said Friday.

A tree fell on a truck in Pershing Court, crushing the roof down to the floor boards, he said. In the areas of Millview and Lennox streets, first responders were blocked by the huge number of fallen trees.

The tornado appeared to move uphill through the city, losing force as it moved toward North Union Township. Dozens of homes and buildings were damaged, some destroyed. Debris, trees and downed wires made many streets and alleys impassable, even by foot.

“Keep going. Don’t come back,” a firefighter shouted to a group of people picking their way through debris on Crow Avenue.

A wooden plank impaled a roof on Gallatin Avenue. Across the street, Brent Ferris inspected the damage to his home. His carport was leveled. Even the side-view mirrors of his cars were twisted as though they were gripped with a vice.

He was home when the tornado came from the west and hit his home, tearing shingles from the roof and shattering windows.

Ferris said the approaching tornado sounded “like they always say.”

“It was high winds, rain, and then it cracked,” said Terri Ferris.

“That’s when we started running,” Brent Ferris said.

Brent’s Tavern, his bar in front of the house, also sustained damage. He said it did not appear as bad as his home. He inherited the bar from his father.

Further uphill, a house collapsed near the intersection of Bailey Avenue and Lemon Street.

“The front of the house was laying in the street, but they brought it up here,” said a woman whose cousin lives at the home. “The door is still standing up!” she added with a laugh.

The tenant was lying in the living room when the tornado hit, ripping two walls from the room and tearing his TV from a third wall, said his father, Alvin Green on Friday. His son ran to hide in the bathroom, the only room with four walls still standing.

“He called and said his house was gone. His mom said, ‘What do you mean your house is gone?’ I thought it was a fire,” he said.

Green lives uphill from his son and saw high winds, a downpour and debris flying through the air. His house was undamaged.

“This is unbelievable here, and he didn’t have a scratch on him,” he said.

Only one minor injury was reported in the storm when a door blew inside and struck a woman in the ribs, according to Crossley. Another person had an anxiety attack on Cleveland Avenue, but crews were delayed by the debris in the road, Uniontown City Police said.

“Other than that, very blessed,” Crossley said. “No major injuries and no fatalities. Given the scope of this thing, that’s pretty significant.”

Jim Bittner of Fayette County Emergency Management Agency said Thursday night that the areas hit hardest by the storm were parts of Gallatin Avenue, Reppert Boulevard and Connellsville Street.

Several houses were heavily damaged along Cleveland Avenue in Uniontown, where traffic light outages and debris abounded in addition to a partial building collapse on Morgantown Street near DiMarco’s Bistro & Cantina.

“I told my niece this afternoon, ‘Take a last look at this building,” Rev. Pete Malik said, recalling driving past what he identified as the old, dilapidated Ellis-Burchinal building on Morgantown Street with his 9-year-old niece Evangelina around 5:30 p.m.

Four hours later, Malik was taking photos of the partial building collapse next to DiMarco’s at 26 Morgantown St., amazed at how prophetic he had been.

Laurel Highlands Senior High School was closed Friday due to a power outage at the high school building and administrative offices, according to Superintendent Jesse Wallace. The other schools in the district operated on a two-hour delay.

There were more than 3,000 West Penn Power customers in Fayette County affected by outages Thursday night, the company’s 24/7 Power Center reported, including 1,975 in Uniontown, 749 in North Union Township. 120 in South Union Township and 97 in Bullskin Township.

By approximately 4:30 p.m. Friday, the number of customers affected by outages county-wide had dwindled to 577, including 321 in Uniontown and 226 in North Union Township. The estimated time of restoration at that point was Saturday at 9 p.m. for Uniontown and North Union Township.

Parts of Uniontown’s West End were hit hard as well, resulting in power outages, downed trees and mailboxes.

“It looked like somebody had a garbage can and just dumped stuff,” said Laura Hill of Elizabeth Street, adding that the storm shook every window in her house around 7 p.m.

Jared Gregor, pastor at The Journey church on West Fayette Street in Uniontown, rushed home from the church after his wife Jenna told him about the storm, which ripped most of the pickets out of his fence.

“It was just really nice seeing the whole community helping out,” said Gregor, whose friends helped him clean up after the storm Thursday evening.

The Fayette County Chamber of Commerce is hosting a free soup and sandwich lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday for first responders, volunteers and anyone affected by the tornado and flooding at 65 West Main Street in Uniontown.

“Everybody is reaching out to help. We have a lot of volunteers,” said Fike, adding that Connellsville offered volunteers and equipment.

“One thing about it, when something like this happens and people are down, there are always people that want to give a helping hand,” he said.

Crossley said he was impressed by the cooperation and communication among those aiding with the storm.

“Hopefully the rain stops, and folks can get back to some kind of normal,” he said Friday evening.

Staff writer Mike Tony contributed to this report.

by Alyssa Choiniere
February 18, 2018

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Kyrie Wagner