Uniontown tornado destroyed 22 buildings, displaces 64 people, officials say

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Many homes affected by Thursday’s rare tornado in Uniontown have been cleared for residents to return, officials said Monday.

But 22 buildings were destroyed and nine more were heavily damaged, said Thomas Perez, operations coordinator for The Salvation Army’s emergency disaster services unit.

In total, 218 structures sustained some level of damage — 73 with minor damage and 114 that mainly need to be cleaned up, he said. The information came during a conference call Monday afternoon with emergency management officials, Perez said.

State and local officials are still assessing the damage wrought by a rare February tornado at 7 p.m. Thursday that packed wind gusts of up to 105 mph and destroyed or damaged homes and businesses in the residential area centered on North Gallatin Avenue. Heavy winds from the EF1 twister ripped the roofs off of some structures and toppled trees and power lines.

It was the first time since 1950 that a tornado struck in the Pittsburgh region in February, according to the National Weather Service. Firefighters rescued people who were trapped in their homes or cars; one person sustained minor injuries.

Officials estimated that the tornado traveled about three-quarters of a mile, leaving damage contained to the north and east sides of the city. One eyewitness told the weather service he or she saw a funnel cloud touch the ground.

The American Red Cross is providing temporary lodging, food and clothing in 25 cases consisting of 64 people whose homes were destroyed or are uninhabitable, according to Dan Tobin, regional director of marketing and communications for the organization’s Western Pennsylvania Region. The agency distributed 34 supply kits to clean up minor damage.

“We still have teams that are going to be in the area,” Tobin said, adding that 42 volunteers and staff members assisted those in need.

The Salvation Army is providing meals for 35 people who are staying at a Uniontown hotel and distributed 18 cleanup supply kits, said Thomas Perez.

“There’s a severe need out there,” Perez said. “The community’s been great.”

Many property owners spent the weekend cleaning up debris or protecting their structures from snow and rain.

“We’re still trying to see if we can find enough for a small business loans declaration,” said Greg Crossley, Uniontown emergency management coordinator. “That’s going to be about the best we can do.”

Such a declaration would enable renters and property owners who had uninsured or under-insured losses to apply for federal low-interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Association. Residents in Connellsville’s Dutch Bottom neighborhood and others in Bullskin and Connellsville townships qualified to apply for the loans after flash flooding damaged or destroyed more than 140 homes in August 2016.

According to the state emergency management agency, at least 25 structures must have had uninsured losses of 40 percent or more the replacement or fair market value of the property for an area to qualify for the loans. Crossley isn’t sure whether the total damages will meet those requirements because many structures were insured.

“I’m impressed with all the cooperation,” Crossley said. “Everybody worked so well together.”

In the meantime, local churches and community groups sent volunteers to help residents whose homes were impacted.

“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of our volunteers,” Tobin said.

The winds knocked out power to the neighborhood, but electricity was restored to most areas later Friday.

by Renatta Signorini
February 19, 2018

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Kyrie Wagner