WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — National Weather Service officials confirmed Thursday that two tornadoes touched down late Wednesday in northeast Pennsylvania, causing severe damage to a major commercial district and destroying homes.
The National Weather Service in Binghamton, New York, sent teams Thursday to two counties in Pennsylvania to determine if tornadoes were part of a severe weather system that also destroyed box stores, smashed cars and left at least six people injured.
Photos and videos of the aftermath show a shopping center in Wilkes-Barre, about 110 miles (177 kilometers) north of Philadelphia, with roofs torn off, cars overturned and storefronts shattered. Similar photos surfaced Thursday morning from Granville, Franklin and Leroy townships, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) further north of Wilkes-Barre, showing collapsed structures and shattered windows.
The investigators' report from Wilkes-Barre said the tornado damage was consistent with an EF2-strength tornado, meaning the average wind speed reached between 111 and 135 mph. Tornadoes are categorized from EF0, which are weaker with wind speeds between 65 and 85 mph, to EF5, which are considered violent with wind speeds of more than 200 mph.
The report said winds likely hit 130 mph as the tornado traveled about half a mile after first touching down near the Wyoming Valley Mall. Investigators said "structures were sheared off near their foundation" when describing the damage.
The preliminary report from Franklin Township in Bradford County said damage there was also consistent with an EF2 tornado. More details about the path, the width and damage were expected to be released later Thursday.
In Wilkes-Barre, city and county officials had closed roads around the damaged shopping centers because of downed power lines and damage to a propane cylinder that was still leaking as of midmorning Thursday.
Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency volunteer Garrett Hittle said crews were working to stabilize the propane cylinder Thursday afternoon. Hittle said there were reports of six storm-related injuries that were not life threatening and did not require anyone to be admitted to a hospital.
Gov. Tom Wolf toured the damage with reporters and first-responders and briefly spoke about how fast storms like the one Wednesday night move. He said was working with county and state officials to determine if the storm would qualify for federal disaster aid.
Joy Frie told The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice that staff and patrons huddled in the kitchen of the bar where she works until they could escape to another business.
"The doors were busting open. Almost everyone's cars in the parking lot were destroyed," the 18-year-old said.
In Bradford County, damage was reported in three neighboring townships, but emergency personnel said there were no reports of injuries.
Jeff Scarboro, the director of public safety and emergency management for the county, said there were about 10 homes with varying reports of damage some of which appeared to be destroyed.
"There were initial reports of entrapments with building collapses and debris, but local fire departments helped with removal from those properties," Scarboro said.
Scarboro said some of the rescues included at least one person in a wheelchair who needed help because of debris and older couples who were trapped in storm cellars by debris.
Associated Press reporter Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to this report.