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Storm damage wasn't too bad, considering it was a tornado

Saturday, June 14, 2003

By Gary Rotstein, Cindi Lash and Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Pittsburgh's first tornado in five years caused just a small fraction of the damage of the last.

Online Chart:
Wind damage patterns


Residents, utility crews and emergency officials all felt relief yesterday in reviewing and repairing damage from Thursday evening's sudden storm.

It included a tornado in the least severe category, F0, which spared most residential property while felling trees on its 3 1/2-mile trek from Green Tree to Mount Washington.

"It didn't come down and hit the ground," said National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Coblentz. "It never dropped down below the tree tops, but technically, if it touches anything that touches the ground, like a tree, it's a tornado."

Sheared tree tops from 70 mph winds represented most of the damage spotted yesterday by weather service officials, who drove throughout the region to follow up on funnel cloud reports from witnesses.

They found no evidence of a tornado reaching Allegheny River communities in the Route 28 corridor. Flash flooding late Thursday caused headaches there, however, just a few days after a microburst had swamped the area.

The last tornado confirmed in Allegheny County was a stronger F1 version with 110 mph winds on June 2, 1998.

That cyclone hit Mount Washington more fiercely on its 32-mile path, and damaged 969 homes in the city alone. It was Pittsburgh's first tornado since 1944.

"Pittsburgh is susceptible. There's nothing topographically that protects it" from a tornado any more than many other northeastern locations, said Rich Kane, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service.

He said tornadoes around the country in recent decades have climbed hills, descended valleys, formed at the confluence of rivers and struck Downtown areas, shattering many pre-existing myths.

Mid-June is the peak time of year for tornado likelihood in Western Pennsylvania, but twisters are less common than microbursts, which can be just as destructive. A downburst is a severe thunderstorm that collapses to ground level, like the one May 31, 2002, that packed 105 mph winds and killed one person and injured dozens more at Kennywood Park.

The weather service said Thursday's tornado formed around 5:40 p.m. in the valley of Whiskey Run, a Green Tree creek. Trees fell in a 50-yard-wide path on property around Elmhurst Road, a side street of Greentree Road, as the tornado headed northeast into the city, where it was last detected on the western section of Grandview Avenue.

Before it had achieved tornado status in the weather service's eyes, the storm had cut a path through Scott, knocking down trees and causing minor structural damage.

Pittsburgh Public Works Director Guy Costa said city storm damage was concentrated in the Chicken Hill section of Ridgemont, a western neighborhood between Mount Washington and Green Tree. High winds tore down about 50 trees, littering yards and closing several streets, including New York, Adolph, Albany and Junius.

"At first, we just wanted to get the streets open. We just cut the trees and pushed [them] aside," Costa said. "[Yesterday] we went back and cleaned up the mess and picked it up."

Some downed trees remain in the neighborhood, all in yards or on private property. Owners of those properties must get rid of the trees themselves or hire a contractor, Costa said.

Public Works crews also cut up and removed fallen trees from several other neighborhoods around the city -- some knocked down by Thursday night's storm and others that fell because the ground holding their roots was too saturated from days of rain to hold them in place, Costa said.

"Some are still coming down from last weekend's storm," he said.

The Sunday storm caused widespread damage and power outages, and Costa said he was expecting more of the same when rain and high winds kicked up again Thursday evening.

"We were fortunate that the area where it hit the worst in the city is not very populated and is heavily wooded," he said. "It could have been worse."

Echoing that was Tom Donatelli, who heads Allegheny County's Public Works Department.

"I was expecting a lot of damage" after hearing reports of high winds, funnel clouds and torrents of rain, Donatelli said. "I was pleasantly surprised."

County crews removed downed trees and limbs on county roads and in North Park. They also cleared mud and debris from a few roads, most of them in the North Hills, which briefly flooded after 1 1/2 inches of rain fell in 30 minutes.

Rain-saturated ground and heavy runoff continued to cause mudslides yesterday, including one at 2:30 p.m. that forced county crews to close Glen Mitchell Road in Kilbuck and Aleppo. Donatelli said the affected portion of the road, which sunk about 10 inches, would be closed with barricades and flashing lights and a detour would be posted indefinitely.

The storm knocked out power to about 7,000 customers of Duquesne Light Co. and 100 customers of Allegheny Power. By yesterday afternoon, only a handful of homes around Western Pennsylvania remained without power and all were expected to get their power back in the evening.

In Armstrong County, where swollen creeks and heavy runoff flooded basements and a few roads in Kittanning and nearby communities, most of the water had receded by yesterday morning.

No residents had to leave their homes. Mudslides briefly blocked a few roads, but crews quickly cleaned up the mud.

In Butler County, state police closed Route 38 in Center at 6:45 a.m. yesterday after runoff flooded it. No motorists were caught in the flood waters, state police said.

The road remained closed through the day, but troopers said the water was receding by afternoon.The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation hoped by today to reopen Freedom Crider Road, which was closed between Freedom Lovi Road and the Beaver-Butler county line by a mudslide.

Another casualty of the storm was newspaper production of the Tribune-Review, which received enough of a jolt at its Marshall printing plant to disable the newspaper's presses early yesterday.

Newspapers did not start rolling out of the building until 7:15 a.m.

When asked if he received any complaints about late deliveries, Tribune-Review President Ed Harrell said, "A few hundred thousand. Who's counting?"

When asked if all subscribers would get their Friday paper eventually, he said, "We certainly hope so."

Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255. Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973. Dan Fitzpatrick can be reached at dfitzpatrick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1752.

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