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Tornado-like winds fell trees throughout region

Friday, June 13, 2003

By Cindi Lash, Lori Shontz and Dan Gigler, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

A storm that formed suddenly over Carnegie streaked across Allegheny County late yesterday afternoon, producing a funnel cloud, ripping trees from the rain-softened ground, tearing down power lines, dumping golf ball-sized hail and providing a stunning spectacle to rush-hour commuters in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Arlene Santucci looks at a 40-foot pine tree sheared off by high winds in her backyard on Lindsay Road in Scott Township. Another large pine tree was uprooted and fell on her neighbors' house during the storm. Click photo for larger image. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

The storm caused only one reported injury -- a man struck by lightning in the city's Ridgemont section -- but provided some near-misses.

A woman had no sooner pulled her car into a garage in Scott when two trees fell across her driveway. In Green Tree, a woman hustled two youngsters from a treehouse just before another tree slammed into it.

The National Weather Service planned to study storm damage to determine if a tornado touched down, warning coordinator meteorologist Rich Kane said.

"Our radar strongly suggests there was a tornado," Kane said. "We had multiple visual reports coming in of funnel clouds."

The storm originated in Carnegie and crossed Scott, Green Tree and the Ridgemont neighborhood shortly after 5:30 p.m. It skirted Mount Washington and passed over Downtown.

"The sky turned a really strange color, a reddish gray, for 10 to 15 minutes," said Bubba Snider, 32, a morning disc jockey for WBZZ-FM who watched the storm from the back door of his home in Carnegie.

"The rain was coming down in blankets -- it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen."

When the storm hit, Linda Diskin's 5-year-old son, Jake, and an 8-year-old friend were playing in the treehouse in back of the Diskin home at Rhodes Avenue and Poplar Street in Green Tree.

Diskin yelled to the children, but they couldn't hear her over the roar of the wind. She finally ran out and got Jake and his friend out of the tree -- just before another tree slammed into it.

"It reminded you of the Wizard of Oz," she said.

  Online Map:
Storm's path and damage



It was the second destructive storm in five days. On Sunday, winds up to 70 mph knocked down trees in the western end of Allegheny County then moved into Downtown Pittsburgh, destroying several artisan booths at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Yesterday's storm did not cause the widespread electrical outages that occurred Sunday night, when nearly 60,000 homes were affected.

Duquesne Light spokesman John Laudenslager said about 7,000 customers lost power yesterday, mostly in Green Tree, Scott, Richland and Pine. An additional 100 customers of Allegheny Power also lost power -- most of them in Arnold, as well as a few pockets in Charleroi and Kittanning, spokeswoman Janice Lantz said.

Crews expected to restore power to most of them by midnight, but Duquesne Light did not expect to have all of its repairs completed until early today.

In Scott, about 50 trees were felled or split in half, with damage concentrated in the area of Greentree Road near Scott Park.

Township Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Sawicki said that 50 to 100 homes were without power and three houses sustained minor structural damage.

Dave Montz, Green Tree's emergency management coordinator, said the borough had reports of decks coming off houses and some awnings down. So many trees fell that some streets were closed briefly until public works crews could clear them, but by 9 p.m. last night, everything was passable, except for Wilson Park, which had so many downed trees that it was cordoned off.

Pittsburgh Public Works Director Guy Costa said the damage in Pittsburgh was mainly confined to the Chicken Hill section of Ridgemont, a neighborhood sandwiched between Mount Washington and Green Tree.

Costa estimated that 40 to 50 trees were brought down along a half-mile path in the heavily wooded neighborhood. Crews were planning to work through the night to reopen streets, he said.

A man was struck by lightning while leaning against a metal fence on Hamburg Street in Ridgemont, said Ray DeMichiei, operations supervisor for the city's Emergency Management Agency.

The 25-year-old man was in fair condition at Mercy Hospital, Allegheny County spokeswoman Margaret Philbin said.

DeMichiei said no other serious injuries were reported in the city.

Marion Whalen of New York Street in Ridgemont was ironing and watching television when the electricity went off. Before she could phone the power company, the lights came back on.

Then the power flickered off again, and the wind began blowing so hard that the window blinds were knocking lamps off of tables. "It all happened within a matter of three or four minutes," she said.

As she rushed around closing windows, Whalen saw trees down in her back yard. When the storm moved on, she went out and saw "the entire yard ... just covered with downed trees."

In Scott, Lindsay Road resident Jan Hoener had just pulled into her garage when the stiff winds came through at about 5:30 p.m.

A moment later, a 40-foot pine tree split in half and came to rest on the back part of her driveway, while a similar-sized pine was uprooted, blocking the top part of her driveway and draping over next-door neighbor Carolyn Gaydosh's roof and front porch.

"I was putting the dog out and I couldn't open the door, the wind was so strong," Gaydosh said.

Across Greentree Road, the Chartiers Terrace townhouse complex sustained substantial tree damage, and residents and maintenance crews worked to clean up brush that was strewn about.

George Graham was sitting on his front porch drinking a beer when the wind began to whip up. His porch furniture and knick-knacks were tossed about and Graham got a jolt when a small flower pot hit him in the back of the head and broke.

National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Rehak said the weather system that spawned yesterday's storm began in the Ohio River Valley in southeastern Ohio and the panhandle of West Virginia.

As the system moved east into Pennsylvania yesterday afternoon, it picked up strength and eventually spun off three separate storm cells, said the weather service's Kane.

The first of the three cells formed above Carnegie and Scott, prompting the weather service to issue a special weather statement that storms carrying heavy rain, dangerous lightning and gusty winds were moving through the region.

At the time, radar did not indicate that the storm over Carnegie met conditions for a "severe thunderstorm," meaning wind gusts of 58 mph or more and hail larger than 3/4 inch, Kane said.

Radar indicated that the Carnegie storm, at that point, was "a more generic storm," with winds ranging from 35 to 40 mph, Kane said.

Meteorologists were initially more concerned with a second storm cell that was forming over Fox Chapel and surrounding communities, Kane said. Radar indicated that storm was intensifying, prompting the weather service to issue a severe thunderstorm warning at 5:37 p.m. for all of Allegheny County.

That storm dumped golf ball-sized hail over Hampton and 1 1/2 inches of rain over surrounding communities, causing some basement and creek flooding in the Russelton section of West Deer.

As the other cell swept up and over Mount Washington and toward Downtown, another cell spun off it, Rehak said. That storm was visibly rotating as it neared Point State Park, alarming scores of rush-hour commuters and patrons of the Three Rivers Arts Festival, but was not spinning fast enough to stretch down into a funnel, the meteorologists said.

The weather service put out a tornado warning for that storm at 5:44 p.m. -- after the cell had done much of its damage in Scott, Green Tree and Ridgemont.

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973. Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722. Dan Gigler can be reached at dgigler@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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