HEMPFIELD TOWNSHIP, Pa. - As residents surveyed the damage to their battered homes Thursday, the National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado with wind speeds up to 120 m.p.h. carved a 300-yard-wide swath of damage through part of Westmoreland County, southeast of Pittsburgh.
But even amid the destruction - felled trees several stories high, homes ripped from their foundations - emergency officials said the damage in Hempfield and Sewickley Townships did not warrant a state-emergency declaration. Officials said affected residents and business owners likely would not qualify for federal disaster relief because most of them were insured.
Dan Stevens, spokesman for the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety, said damage estimates totaled at least $4.5 million.
But emergency officials from the state and county who surveyed the damage had not encountered a single uninsured homeowner, Stevens said. It's one of the primary factors that federal disaster officials look at when they're determining whether a storm warrants federal help.
In that sense, the county had made out of this storm well.
"We just had one of the worst storms that we had in our county. It's been a while," Stevens said, "and now these people are going to actually be able to fix our homes because they have insurance."
Hempfield Township declared an emergency less than two hours after the tornado hit. Stevens said that if nearby Sewickley Township decided to make an emergency declaration, the county would likely follow suit. The declaration would allow agencies to bypass certain bidding requirements to hire contractors quickly.
State and local officials fanned out into Hempfield and Sewickley to assess the damage. Stevens anticipated they would complete their assessment by today, and he estimated that the county's initial tally of 90 damaged homes "is probably going to grow."
National Weather Service meteorologists were also in the field and determined that the tornado was an EF-2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures the ferocity of twisters from a scale of EF 0, being the weakest, to EF 5, being the strongest. Based on the damage, they estimated it traveled a path between six and seven miles long.
Many streets remained closed because heavy debris - including pieces of siding, uprooted trees, and snapped-off utility poles - made them impassable.
On several of the most heavily hit streets, homeowners were out Thursday collecting debris from smashed fences, roofs, backyard play sets, and sheds, as representatives from insurance companies processed claims, and utility workers tried to repair power lines. At noon, about 3,300 homes were still without power in Westmoreland County.
Kurt Ferguson, township manager in Hempfield, said an initial review did not indicate "significant" damage to public property other than the roof at Hempfield Area High School, part of which was torn away in the storm. The school was closed Thursday.
The storm brought out the good and bad in people.
Officials from a local Home Depot called Ferguson to ask if the store should stay open later to accommodate the township's needs, and it donated plywood, tarps, and other material to workers trying to make emergency repairs and provide shelter for people.
On the other hand, officials called in extra state police and five auxiliary sheriff's deputies after receiving reports of looters combing through the debris. Ferguson said he had not heard of any arrests.