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Twister-battered town lives on the edge after the storm

Wednesday, June 03, 1998

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

SALISBURY, Pa. -- Talking about the weather took on new meaning here yesterday evening.

On Sunday night, the weather destroyed 43 homes and businesses in and near this Somerset County town, leaving dozens with nowhere to live.

The weather injured 15 people.

The weather killed a 13-year-old girl on her way home from a graduation party.

After Sunday's tornado and thunderstorms had passed, the weather turned almost rudely beautiful Monday and early yesterday.

But by late yesterday, as it so often and quickly does in spring, the weather started to turn back.

"I heard a man say it's another tornado coming," said Regina Robertson, 68, who sat on one of the cots the Red Cross set up in Salisbury-Elk Lick Elementary School. This has been Robertson's shelter since the tornado blasted many of the windows out of Salisbury Manor, where she and some 30 other older folks lived.

For now, "home" was the children's library, where, because of the electricity still being out, Robertson had to read the local newspaper's tornado story by the sunlight seeping in through the windows.

She preferred to be a bit in the dark rather than be too close.

"I don't want to be by those windows," she said after recounting how she and some other residents had hit the floor Sunday just as the storm hit and sent glass flying. "It just sounded like it was coming through the wall."

Now her ears were particularly alert to any news about the thunderstorms forecast for yesterday. "They don't want to tell me because I get too excited," she said, managing a smile that said she wasn't too nervous.

Still, she turned her head when a late-afternoon breeze suddenly swirled the maple tree right outside those windows.

Then she looked back to where her sister and other volunteers were staffing an intake desk, and let out a sigh. "I feel safer with people, you know."

Red Cross spokeswoman Dani Mardaya said that people at the shelter started talking about the weather forecast yesterday morning. "They're still a little panicky about it."

Mostly, the mood was brisk on the part of extremely busy workers and calm on the part of the few people who remained at the shelter yesterday. Officials expected the numbers to dwindle from more than 200 to around 20, as people returned to their homes or found other places to stay.

Outside, as the pretty white clouds thickened and darkened, the news began to spread there was indeed a tornado watch in effect for the area.

Donna Mort and her sons, Scott and Brandon, made sure their neighbors knew, as they made their way to their undamaged house through the people cleaning up the worst destruction.

"Hey, Mabel," Scott called to one woman sitting on her porch. "There's another tornado watch."

The woman declined the Morts' offer to come to their basement, so Donna told her, "You crunch down on the floor if you hear it."

When the sirens sounded around 7:30, the Morts headed for their basement where they'd hunkered Sunday night. The tornado knocked down trees 20 feet from the house.

This time, they took into the basement the dog, the cat, the rabbit, the cockateel and the finch. They also took the radio, a flashlight and a video camera.

"I figured if it was going to hit this time, I'd like to get it on tape," said Scott Mort.

They tried to keep each other calm. They argued a little about where they should be. Donna Mort was worried that the main basement was under the part of the house that used to be a trailer, and she thought it might shift and fall in on them.

Older son Bill Mort pointed out that the rear add-on garage has too many windows, even though Scott had taped up the glass.

They opted for the far corner of the basement, and sat together in the dark listening to the radio.

At one point, the local announcer started screaming that he saw a tornado over St. Paul, about two miles away.

"We thought it was coming," Donna Mort said. "We thought it was on the way."

The radio went out.

"And nothing happened," Scott said. "Nothing happened."

Hearing that the wind had died down, Bill Mort went upstairs.

Scott Mort told his mom and his brother to tell his former girlfriend in Minneapolis that he loves her if anything should happen.

And then he went outside to have a look.

"And nothing," Scott said.

After Bill and Brandon left to get diesel fuel for Bill's truck, Scott and Donna sat by the light of a hurricane lamp and waited.

"In my wildest dreams, I never thought there'd be two in a row like that," Donna said.

But the storm was getting closer and louder.

Lightning flashed.

"I wish Billy and Brandon would get back," Donna said.

When they did return, they said they'd heard that another twister had touched down in St. Paul.

The lightning and thunder got closer, and Brandon fidgeted.

"It's not a tornado, Brandon, it's just a bad thunderstorm," Donna Mort said.

The storm died down, but the reports of the tornadoes on the radio did not.

Outside, above their house, the sky cleared so that a few stars could be seen.

"I hope no one died," Brandon said.

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