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May 19, 2013

Salisbury proved it can happen here

— It was an event that many residents of Salisbury, Somerset County, would have laughed off prior to it spinning through the small northeastern town and shaking it to its foundations. A Category F3 tornado touched down on May 31, 1998, carving out 10 miles of homes, businesses and livelihoods.

Then, there was another. And another. Three tornadoes within as many days drove home a very dire fact.

“The biggest thing was that folks started to realize that it could happen here,” said Carl Moen, director of the Southern Alleghenies EMS Council.

“Pennsylvania is not particularly at risk for tornadoes, but they do happen every year.”

According to David Martin, forecaster with the National Weather Service in State College, several days in late May featured very abnormally warm air at low and mid levels in the atmosphere, as well as high levels of humidity. Two fast-moving fronts with jet stream winds combined to form strong directional windshear – all of these are precursors to a tornado watch.

“You start seeing rapid buildups of puffy, white clouds, black skies, a lot of frequent cloud-to-ground lightning, really gusty winds and hail,” Martin said. “Some of the bigger storms can develop very fast – in 10 to 20 minutes.

“Our storm prediction center was concerned early in the day,” he said. “We were starting to see evidence mid- to late-afternoon and proceeded to issue warnings.”

Damage was estimated at more than $20 million; however, fatalities were few, and the response was wide.

Georgia Lehman, emergency services director for the Keystone Chapter of the American Red Cross, was in the field that day, helping to assist more than 130 families by serving them three meals a day and providing medical aid, clothing and lodging.

Moen said getting Salisbury back on its feet was a “long, drawn-out process.” The impromptu service center established by the Red Cross at the Salisbury-Elk Lick Elementary School was there for over two weeks, although it was months before the disaster relief arm of the organization pulled up its stakes.

“From the start to the end, when we closed our service center and shelter, we served over 17,000 meals and spent over $250,000,” Lehman said.

Salisbury ambulances sustained “significant” damage when the department’s garages were hit, according to Moen. His organization scrambled EMS services from several surrounding areas to pick up the slack. It was a feat that evolved the response capabilities in that area.

“Between then and now, with all the emergency preparedness planning, especially with the September 11 event and subsequent things, there is a lot more integration,” he said. “If an event occurs like that again, we’ve got the ability to get resources on the ground. To get services out there – EMS, fire, health and emergency management. It’s just a lot more organized and we’re capable of a far better response.”

Although Salisbury experienced years’ worth of tornadoes within a few days, Martin said it’s still rather uncommon.

“Give or take, it’s once every decade,” he said.

But preparedness is always the best strategy for disaster. The Red Cross has a wealth of resources designed to help families ready themselves for the worst. At, an interactive module teaches three tenets – “Get a kit. Make a plan. Be informed.”

The narrated Flash element details what should go into the three-day emergency kit that will provide the basic necessities, which includes, among many other things, at least a gallon of water per person per day, a flashlight, a battery-powered or hand-crank radio, medical supplies, a multipurpose tool and first aid kit. It also offers advice on creating an emergency plan and how to stay on top of the latest critical information.

“Know the general emergencies that can happen in your community,” Lehman said.

The free Red Cross tornado preparedness app – available on the iOS App Store and Android Marketplace – can pinpoint your smartphone’s location to deliver the latest NOAA weather alerts for your area. It also shows dates and locations of previous tornado touchdowns in the area, as well as directs users toward nearby Red Cross shelters.

The most dangerous behavior is thinking it can’t happen to you.

“There’s not a lot of damage from (tornadoes in this area), so people get complacent,” Moen said. “I think (the Salisbury tornado) heightened the awareness that it could happen and the dangers of tornadoes in the state.”

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