The tornado that devastated parts of Bensalem Township on Thursday packed winds of 140 mph — a rare EF3 for the Philadelphia region, and the first one in 27 years, the National Weather Service said Friday.
The National Weather Service also confirmed six other tornadoes, including one in Ocean County that traveled from Waretown to Long Beach Island with winds up to 115 mph; two others in Bucks County; and a weak one in Northeast Philly.
After issuing 14 radar-based tornado warnings, the weather service in Mount Holly dispatched five teams Friday to determine whether we can believe what radar was seeing Thursday about a rather unbelievable spell of nature’s fury. The preliminary results suggested radar was onto something.
The investigators were focusing on a 130-mile corridor of damage from near Allentown to the Jersey Shore, said Jason Franklin, the meteorologist in charge of the Mount Holly office.
“It’s going to be a long day,” said Franklin. The warning frenzy began in east-central Delaware, about 150 miles south of the line that shredded its way through Bucks County and the Garden State late in the day on Thursday and continuing well into the night.
Shortly after 7 p.m. Thursday what almost certainly was a tornado ripped apart several buildings in Bensalem Township, as the mayhem progressed eastward from the Lehigh Valley all the way to Long Beach Island in a destructive march to the Atlantic.
“I’d never seen anything like it, except on television,” Bensalem Township Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo said at a news briefing Friday morning.
The tornado overturned cars, damaged buildings at a Faulkner Buick GMC dealership near Trevose, hit a mobile home park, and caused minor damage to other residential areas. Roads remain blocked by downed trees.
But the timing was fortuitous in one sense, said Fred Harran, the township’s veteran director of public safety. Had it struck two hours earlier, when more people were at the dealership, it could have been catastrophic. Among other evidence of the storm’s power, bricks were strewn throughout the parking lot.
“It looked like a 3-year-old disassembled a LEGO set,” he said.
Six people suffered minor injuries in Bensalem, but no deaths were reported, said Harran.
The storms erupted in advance of an approaching cold front, said Franklin, which was interacting with a warm front. Together they conspired to add dangerous spin to the atmosphere. The horror story was evident on radar, he said.
“Whenever we saw rotation,” he said, “there were reports of damage.”
It is likely that only a few tornadoes will be verified, said Paul Walker, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College. Much of the damage was expected to be attributed to straight-line winds or “microbursts,” destructive winds that descend to the ground during thunderstorms.
While buildings and trees may not particularly care whether a damaging wind blows in circles or in a straight line, it’s important for meteorologists to know whether radar is a reliable indicator and whether they are interpreting what they see correctly, he said.
He added it wouldn’t be possible to know just how many twisters had touched down until the investigations were completed.
“I think this is going to be more involved than what we’re used to,” said Franklin. “It happens. It may not happen that often.”
It has happened in Bucks County before. On May 28, 1896, an F3 tornado with winds approaching 200 mph skipped through the county, tossing the Penn Valley train station onto railroad tracks, where it was nearly rammed by a speeding New York express train, according to published accounts. The storm claimed four lives.
Thursday’s was the third powerful storm to assault Bensalem in the last two weeks. At the Faulkner dealership, wires hung from the ceiling of the now windowless main building, which was strewn with debris.
Said Harran, “I can only hope this is it for awhile.”