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May 31, 1998 Severe Thunderstorm and Tornado Outbreak

Dew points told the story at dawn - low 60's. Then in the afternoon - upper 60's to low 70's (remember, this is PA)! Temperatures topped out in the upper 80's and low 90's. CAPE values exceeded 3000 in some areas! LI's were as low as -8. The SPC put PA and NY in a very unusual risk - HIGH RISK! You can see the graphic and text as SPC had it. This was an abnormally dangerous situation for the area, as you can see in this Public Severe Weather Outlook. High risks are rarely used for anyplace in the country, and almost never used for PA or surrounding areas. It implies an extremely dangerous situation, due to the widespread nature of the storms, and their potential strength. The National Weather Service in State College issued this statement before the storms developed.

A tornado watch was issued for all of central NY, and a severe thunderstorm watch for parts of western PA, in the late morning. In the afternoon, tornado watches were posted for PA, and areas northeast, into southern New England. Severe thunderstorm warnings were issued for most counties, and tornado warnings for many. Widespread damage was reported, both from severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. An amazing number of supercells developed across the region. Here are some preliminary statements issued by NWS for just some of the tornadoes across PA and NY.

Pennsylvania damage--

I apologize the links to radar below are not working. I was linking to another website, and those images were lost during a hard drive crash they had.

Extreme northwest PA experienced the least severe weather, with mainly large hail falling. Dime size hail fell approximately 4 miles south of Erie. Edinboro, Albion, Springboro, West Springfield, and Fairview had quarter size hail, while the same line of thunderstorms dropped golfball size hail in Cambridge Springs, Conneautville, and Saegertown. Damaging wind gusts from thunderstorms downed trees in Girard.

In Warren county, damage was from strong downburst winds, primarily in the northern part of the county. Along Old State Line road, north of Lander, a barn was obliterated by a thunderstorm microburst. Numerous trees were also downed in that general area. There was no cyclonic rotation noted with the damage and all trees fell in one direction (east), one of the indicators of downburst winds (i.e., thunderstorm winds). At 2200Z (600 pm, EDT), the time of the barn destruction, radar showed the storm. The severe thunderstorm also blew down a sign onto a car in Sugar Grove. Nickel size hail also fell with this thunderstorm in Lottsville and Sugar Grove. The NWS-CTP issued a severe thunderstorm warning for this storm.

In McKean county, dime size hail broke the windshield of a police car in Bradford, and trees were blown down north of Smethport, by thunderstorm winds.

In Elk county, two tornadoes were confirmed, one being an F0 and the other an F1. The F0 had peak winds of no more than 60 mph, with damage only to trees, as it moved through a wooded area 2 miles north of Ridgway on route 948. The path length was a few hundred yards. The F1 touched down 5 miles north of Ridgway along route 948, with peak winds up to 90 mph and a 3.5 mile long path. Many trees were pushed over or twisted, roofing was torn off a silo and barn, and a shed was completely destroyed. At 2341Z, radar showed a small scale, but strong bow-echo over Elk county. Besides the two tornadoes that were produced, damaging thunderstorm winds occurred, downing many trees near both Ridgway and Saint Marys.

The bow-echo continued into Cameron county, spawning 2 F0 gustnadoes which touched down in southern Grove township near Wykoff Road, and had peak winds of less than 70 mph. Both gustnadoes had a path length of 100-200 yards, and developed at the northern and southern edge of a thunderstorm downburst. The downburst did most of the damage, and was a mile wide along Montour road in extreme eastern Cameron county. Damage was confined to trees as it passed through wooded areas. Right along the Cameron/Clinton county line, the downburst winds caused extensive tree damage. For a time, almost every tree was down! This would indicate downburst winds around 100 mph, since the trees were not rotton or weak. Usually when only some trees are down, even if the few are large, winds are much less than 100 mph.

As the bow-echo entered Clinton county, strong downburst winds, probably close to 100 mph, occurred in East Keating township. This damage was from the same downburst that struck in Grove township, Cameron county (see above paragraph). The downburst crossed the county line into Clinton county, and continued to cause extensive tree damage in the forest of East Keating township. For while, most of the trees in sight were either snapped or uprooted! While most of the damage was of the downburst variety, at the eastern edge of the downburst, the tree damage pattern indicated that an F0 gustnado, with winds of 40-60 mph and a length of 100 yards, spun up. Other tree damage occurred from downbursts throughout Clinton county, including in Lock Haven. Siding was ripped off of homes in Renovo, with trees and lines also down.

The same bow-echo spawned a small downburst in Wharton township, southern Potter county. Winds of close to 70 mph were estimated, and only remote areas were affected, resulting in just tree damage. Nickel size hail fell in Wharton, with dime size hail falling in Genesee. Tress and lines were down in Wellsboro, Tioga county too.

One of the places damaged by a severe thunderstorm was the Williamsport/Lycoming county airport. I toured the airport the next day, and took pictures. Total damages was about $1 million. One large hanger was significantly damaged, and another was damaged to a lesser extent. These three pictures (one, two, three) show the damage to the worst off hanger. From a distance, those pictures all fit together... and it looks even more impressive. A plane inside the hanger was destroyed and a couple private planes outside the hanger were tossed around. The second hanger, this receiving moderate damage, had a side wall buckled out and its 700 pound metal doors ripped completely off their hinges. One of these doors was blown into a nearby building, causing additional damage. Another building was damaged (walls gouged) from flying tin roofing materials. Other pieces landed right next to another building... just barely missing causing more damage. These buildings were constructed of metal, and the first one shown in pictures was damaged beyond repair (totaled). Upon completion of this survey, it was determined that downburst winds of 55-65 mph caused this damage. Damage patterns were almost completely divergent, indicative of thunderstorm winds. There were hints of slight convergence at times, but I did not find that this was enough evidence for me to determine there was a gustnado on the ground. The convergence was to slight.

Also, a few hundred yards away from the damaged hanger's, a grove of trees stood. A few of these were sheared off, seconds before the airport was damaged.

Continuing into Williamsport, about 80% of the city's roads had trees, limbs, or power lines on them. One of the least blocked streets can be seen here. Note the power line that has been pulled down into the street, caught underneath the limb. At one point there was a whole row of trees, a few inches in diameter, that were snapped alongside the road. One of these can be seen here. Other larger trees were down throughout the downtown area. A tall Long John Silver's sign mounted on a steel post in front of their restaurant was pushed over a couple inches. Many of the traffic lights were also not working. Winds in the city of Williamsport were estimated around 50 to occasionally 60 mph. I also drove around Muncy in Lycoming county (southeast of Williamsport), and found more damage, mainly to trees. Along route 2014 in and outside of Muncy, there was uncontinuous trees and tree limbs down, along with construction signs and small billboards blown over. In Muncy, a 300 year old tree was uprooted, by thunderstorm winds! It just missed crushing a house. This tree is believed to be one of the oldest in the state. A SKYWARN Spotter in Muncy recorded a thunderstorm wind gust of 62 mph. Other houses along that road also had trees and limbs down on their property. Many were cleaning up when I drove through.

Also in Lycoming county, an F1 tornado, with maximum winds of 90 mph, touched down on Sugar Hill (confirmed by NWS survey, and also sighted by SKYWARN Spotter), and continued moving east, crossing route 15, and striking Buttonwood. Damage was mainly to trees, but not entirely. A shed was destroyed at a hunting lodge, a portable toilet was picked up and thrown into a ravine at a construction site along route 15 (nobody was using it at the time), and part of the sheet metal roofing at a lumber yard was blown off. Wood planks from the lumber yard were scattered around a large area, with one of the planks being thrown with such force, that it punctured the tire of a tractor trailer nearby. This is one of the biggest reasons to not be outside during tornadoes. Flying debris is what kills most people. Even an F1 can hurl debris with tremendous power. Another small, weak, F1 touched down about 3 miles southwest of Salladasburg, and moved northeast for 7 miles. Intermittent tree damage was observed along the path length, several sheds were damaged, and a haywagon was lifted and damaged. In addition, at the initial touchdown along a ridgetop, a garage and breezeway were demolished. An F0 tornado touched down just southwest of Hughesville, destroying one trailer, and blowing another off its foundation. A few trees were also uprooted in the area. Quarter size hail (1") also fell with this severe thunderstorm, in both Cedar Run and Buttonwood.

South central PA, and parts of the Susquehanna Valley, saw severe weather too, but mainly in the form of damaging thunderstorm winds and large hail. Trees were downed in Milton (Northumberland county), Muncy (Lycoming county)... as mentioned above, near Danville (Montour county), Millville (Columbia county), Manns Choice (Bedford county), Shade Gap (Huntingdon county), Harrisburg (Dauphin county), Cashtown (Adams county), just south of Warfordsburg (Fulton county), and 5 miles south of Chambersburg (Franklin county). Cars were hit by the falling trees in Milton, and a loaded trailer was rolled in Cashtown. Thunderstorm winds also blew the roof off of Bell Socialization building in York (York county). The top of a 60 foot white oak tree was also blown into a home in that area. A 63 mph thunderstorm wind gust was recorded in Shiremanstown (Cumberland county). Dime size hail fell in Mercersburg and Greencastle, both in Franklin county, and in York (York county).

In Somerset county, an F2 tornado touched down just east of Mt Davis, then slammed into downtown Salisbury (quarter size hail also fell with the severe thunderstorm). The tornado then intensified to an F3, for a brief time, when it reached Pocahontas. Throughout the path, 10-15 businesses were significantly damaged. A furniture factory was destroyed, and a house was completely leveled... the main indicator that F3 winds were present. Many trees were ripped out of the ground, or had their tops twisted/sheared off. The total path length was 15 miles. The width varied from 50 yards to a half a mile. A 13 year old girl died in the tornado, and 15 others were injured, all requiring medical treatment. The death occurred when a tree fell onto the vehicle the girl was in. An estimated 4 million dollars in damage resulted from seconds of nature's fury. A tornado warning was issued before the twister struck... as Doppler radar indicated that the severe thunderstorm had strong and persistent rotation. For a time, the thunderstorm had rotational wind speeds of 50-60 mph!! To this point, that is the strongest rotational wind speeds that the State College Radar had recorded. Here are just a few of the many scenes of the damage in Somerset county:

A factory leveled. Note the overturned tractor trailers.
A cow killed
Even the deceased couldn't rest in peace
House completely demolished
Many trees down and house leveled
Trees down, and clearly seen suction vortex markings
Severely damaged house
Another house pushed off its foundation and destroyed
More destruction
House opened up
Business frame twisted - about to fall down at any moment!
See same building from the back
Debris tossed around
House debris scattered across a wide area

A severe thunderstorm became tornadic near Beaumont, located at the far south-central part of Wyoming county. The tornado was of the lower half of F1 intensity, and was on the ground for about 2 minutes, traveling about half a mile. Dozens of trees were downed (maple, oak, pine), a metal sign was bent over, a chain link fence suffered significant damage, and a barn lost its roof. There was no houses in the direct path of the tornado, but one house did receive roof damage from a falling tree. What gave the idea that this was a tornado and not thunderstorm winds was the chaotic nature that the debris was thrown. Tree limbs and trees were thrown and scattered in all directions... showing absolutely no organization. If thunderstorm winds would have done this damage, most debris would have been thrown in one general direction. The other key factor that showed a likely tornado was the radar velocity data. The velocity image is on the right and reflectivity is shown on the left. Pay attention to the velocity data. Note the dark reds coupled with the greens directly over Beaumont. If you don't know how to read a Doppler radar velocity image, here's how you do it. Velocity data shows the wind speeds and direction within thunderstorms. The green colors show winds blowing toward the radar dish, and reds show winds blowing away from the radar site. When these two colors come right next to each other, it shows that winds are blowing in opposite directions very close together... thus showing that the thunderstorm is rotating... meaning that a tornado may be produced.

Luzerne and Lackawanna counties suffered from severe thunderstorms, including three tornadoes. They, fortunately, were weak ones (relatively speaking). So many trees and power lines were downed by thunderstorm winds, it just can't be described as to where they were all down. It seemed that no matter where you went in both counties, you couldn't escape the tree damage. Large hail also fell in several areas, including Pittston, Dupont, and Shavertown, varying from dime to over half dollar size. One severe thunderstorm produced up to 2" hail in Old Forge. Numerous vehicles had dents, and windows were cracked on both cars and houses. Thousands of dollars in damage resulted. Damaging winds were also produced from the thunderstorm, downing trees, lines, and utility poles. Two cars were buried underneath large tree branches in Pittston, and sustained heavy damage. In Dunmore, very strong thunderstorm winds, over 75 mph, ripped two sizeable holes in the walls of a huge warehouse. The walls were made of solid steel panels. It is possible that a gustnado spun up in that area, but it was not confirmed. Also in Dunmore, a business had a large section of its roof ripped off by thunderstorm winds. It landed on and blocked a road. A "industrial strength" tent in Peckville was completely leveled. A confirmed tornado touched down very briefly (on the ground for about a minute) in Jackson township (Luzerne county), uprooting several trees, and snapping a few utility poles. It was rated an F0, with winds averaging 55-65 mph. Another F0-F1 touched down in Old Forge. Winds were mainly F0 strength, but may have briefly reached F1 intensity. A restaurant had its front windows blown out, and trees toppled in the front yard, near the parking lot. Several more trees were downed in other areas, with a large tree uprooted two blocks west of the fire station. The fire house sustained minor roof damage and had some bricks damaged. A cinder block dugout at a little league baseball field two blocks east of the fire station was also destroyed. Yet another F0 tornado was produced in Jefferson township, just west of Half Moon Lake, along route 348. Damage was isolated, but several trees were uprooted, with one being completely defoliated and having its bark stripped off!

Wayne county was bombarded with severe weather also. Again, trees and lines were downed all over the place, so it would be virtually impossible to list where. Roads were closed for up to 2 days in some areas. 1-2" hail was produced from one severe thunderstorm in Sterling township, damaging the siding of a house. Quarter (1") size hail was produced in South Canaan. Damage resulted at a mobile home park, with several trailers having smashed windows, damaged roofs, and dented siding. Damage was nearly $20,000. In Dreher township, a weak F0 tornado touched ground for a short time, downing a few trees, limbs, and power lines.

Bradford and Susquehanna counties were hardly touched by the severe weather with this outbreak. A few trees and wires were down in New Albany and Montrose. However, they made up for it two days later. Sullivan county had a little more damage than Bradford and Susquehanna counties, with trees down near Laporte, and in Worlds End State Park. In this area, tree damage was actually significant, with large trees blown down. All damage was to trees, as almost all of the county is heavily wooded.

Probably the hardest hit area was Pike county. Within a 3 hour period (7-10 pm), four tornadoes raked Pike county, three of them of strong (F2-F3) intensity... causing immense damage... almost all to trees. This is one of those situations where you have to see a lot of good pictures or actually be there to understand the magnitude of the severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. Most of Pike county is heavily wooded, thus greatly reducing building damage and death. If these tornadoes had hit a populated area, the un-thinkable would have happen. The Delaware State Forest and Promised Land State Park suffered the brunt of the storms, with thousands of trees down. Most of these trees were very healthy and mature, but the force of the winds still knocked them down... quite easily. Some people said they hadn't seen this kind of damage since World War 2. Miles of forest was completely leveled.

1). The first tornado in Pike county touched down near Promised Land, then plowed a 2 mile long path through the Promised Land State Park. Hundreds of trees were snapped and twisted off, littering the campgrounds. Some of the trees were quite sizeable and healthy, but were still easily knoked down... the main reason for the F2 (113-157 mph) rating which was given to the storm. The campsites were vacant, fortunately. No vacation homes were in the direct path of the tornado, but some were close. These are the ones that sustained damage from falling/flying trees. Sections of roofs and walls were crushed.

2). A severe thunderstorm quickly became tornadic just south of Interstate 84, producing another F2 tornado. The tornado initially touched down east of Tarey Hill (southeast of Blooming Grove), immediately south of Interstate 84. It moved parallel to I-84 for about 3 miles, then lifted just east of route 739. The tornado seemed to fluctuate between F1 and F2 intensity, as it moved through a heavily wooded area. No homes were in the path of the tornadic thunderstorm, resulting in hundreds of trees being mowed down. Like the other Pike county tornadoes, many of the trees were knocked down quite easily, despite their huge size and maturity. A number of local roads were closed for about a day.

3). The strongest tornado first touched down in Pecks Pond, and then cut a 20 mile long nearly continuous path east southeast toward Dingmans Ferry. It ended 1 mile northeast of Dingmans Ferry, around route 739. The tornado had F2 intensity from the initial touchdown (Pecks Pond) to Blue Heron Lake. Nearly every tree was cut down between these areas. A small vacation community located around Blue Heron Lake was hit at about 8:30 pm. A summer home was leveled by the tornado, with only one interior wall still standing. A mobile home nearby was also destroyed. The forest area was almost completely empty from people, but two campers suffered injuries from falling tree branches. An estimated thousands of trees were uprooted/twisted off around the lake!! The tornado reached F3 intensity at this point... evident by both the size of the trees (a few feet wide), and the maturity of them. As one man put it, "hundreds of years of natures work is destroyed by seconds of natures fury!". The tornado quickly lost F3 intensity after this, and had mainly F1 damage as it passed across Little Mud Pond, Silver Lake, and the Deer Leap Factory areas... keeping a consistent path of downed trees. Of interesting note, the tornado went up and down several hilltops/ridges/mountains, hopefully putting to rest the myth that tornadoes don't go over mountains. The tornado ended just north of Dingmans Ferry, near route 739. From aerial pictures/surveys, it was clearly evident that this was tornadic damage, as there was impressive swirls and circular patterns within the tree damage. Some roads, including parts of route 402, were closed for several days... as they were completely buried with trees.

4). A severe thunderstorm produced a brief, small, tornado in the southwest part of the county, near Greentown. It was rated an F0, with winds averaging about 65 mph. A number of trees were uprooted or had their tops sheared off just east of route 447. The path was small, having a length just over a quarter mile, and a width of just under 100 feet.

In Lancaster county, an F2 tornado touched down just south of Quarryville, and traveled 7-8 miles to Nine Points. Extensive damage to numerous homes occurred. One had its second floor completely ripped off. A few barns were damaged, with one destroyed. Falling trees caused serious structural damage to other buildings along the path of this tornado. Fortunately, only one minor injury occurred as a result of this tornado.

A violent thundstorm that crossed the northern half of Berks county spawned the first F3 tornado since 1950 in the county. The tornado first touched down just east of Lake Ontelaunee in Maiden Creek township, near Evansville. It moved nearly due east, crossing US route 222 and making a direct strike on the small borough of Lyons. The tornado then lifted 2 miles east of there, making a path lenght of just over 8 miles. Damage was first noted near route 222 in Maiden Creek township, where the roof of a farmhouse was blown off and a car was crushed by a falling tree. The tornado tracked eastward across Richmond township, damaging or destroying at least 10 homes and farms. One completely collapsed. The tornado was also responsible for leveling a huge silo, and tearing the roofs off of another silo and a barn. The reamins of a large metal building lay atop of one house. Numerous trees and power poles were snapped, closing roads. Parts of US route 222 was closed because of other debris on the highway. In the Bowers area of Maxatawny township, several homes were severely damaged/not livable. One totally collapsed. The worst of the damage occurred in the borough of Lyons. The north side of town was destroyed. The damage was so severe that the county was declared a presidential disaster area... thus making the residents able to apply for federal aid to help rebuild. This picture was taken by the NWS in one of the badly damaged areas. Because of the early NWS warning, many lives were saved. Persons took quick action to save their lives, and injuries were limited to five in Lyons. After the tornado finished its track across Lyons, it lifted back into the thunderstorm 2 miles east town. Just before it lifted though, it picked up a modular home from its foundation. The two people inside were injured and rushed to the hospital. They apparently didn't have a basement, but took shelter in an interior room and braced for the storm. Total damage from the tornado is estimated at 1.5 million dollars. The same thunderstorm also produced up to golfball size hail in Moselem Springs, which damaged vehicles and a metal awning.

Even without the tornado however, the severe thunderstorm produced its own damaging winds north and east of Reading in Berks county. Outside of Leesport, in Centre township, the thunderstorm winds overturned several trailers at a mobile home park. In Leesport, the severe thunderstorm ripped the roof completely off of one house, letting the rain fall in and cause water damage. A detached garage also had its roof ripped off, as well as bricks from the wall. Numerous other houses and buildings in town had wind damage from thunderstorm winds. Pieces from a businesses air conditioning unit were thrown throughout an entire neighborhood... causing some damage to houses. Trees were uprooted and power lines were blown down outside of Topton. Between the tornado and thunderstorm winds, power was out to more than 10,000 people in Berks county alone. Some people had to wait four days to get it back. In addition, lightning struck and injured a man in Reading. Outside of Reading, lightning struck a tree, causing it to fall on and destroy a mobile home. The tree fell on a womans leg inside... injuring it.

In Lehigh, Northampton, Monroe, Bucks, and Montgomery counties, severe thunderstorms caused scattered wind damage. Trees and power lines were pulled down, with some roads blocked. Dime size hail fell in Snydersville, Monroe county. In the northern half of Monroe county, trees and liens were downed. A 14 year old boy died from an asthma attack, caused by the violence from the thunderstorm. It took paramedics an unusually long time to get to the scene because of downed trees on roads. Also, lightning struck an apartment building in Montgomery county, causing a fire.

A line of severe thunderstorms moved through southern Chester county, causing about 1 million dollars in damage. Half of that amount was caused by thunderstorm winds, and the other half was caused by two F1 tornaodes. Power poles and trees were snapped by the thunderstorm winds, and a few dozen homes were damaged. On one piece of property, over 100 trees were uprooted by the strong winds from the thunderstorms! Hundreds more were downed across teh southern part of the county. At one point, every major road in New Garden township was closed due to downed trees and power lines. Several barns and silos were destroyed. At least one car and garage was crushed by trees, and a flag pole was bent to the ground. Many houses and cars were hit by falling trees, causing a lot of damage. On some streets, virtually every house had trees on or in them. Among the downed trees was a 140 year old Kentucky Coffee Tree... one of the oldest in eastern PA.
The first tornado of the night traveled from Londonderry township, and ended in West Marlborough. Most of the area was rural, so structural damage was limited. However, hundreds of trees were downed along the six mile long path. The second tornado touched down in far eastern Pocopson township, and ended in Birmingham township. Hundreds of tree and power lines were downed, and several houses had roof and window damage. Numerous vehicles were hit by falling trees along the three mile long path.

An 8 mile long (uncontinuous track) tornado first touched down in Willow Grove (Montgomery county) and then moved into Northeast Philadelphia. The intensity was F0 for much of the time, but it briefly became a strong F1 (borderline F2) as it reached northeast sections of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, four people were injured by flying debris. Several buildings in the Philadelphia metropolitan area collapsed. Houses had roofs blown off, and vehicle windows were blown out. In all, over 20 structures (houses, businesses, warehouses) were damaged or destroyed. The path width was a few hundred feet.

Damage was not limited to Pennsylvania. A few strong tornadoes (F2-F3 on the Fujita Scale) touched down in central/eastern New York, in addition to other wind damage. Read all about it here, in this significantly updated section! Links to many pictures are also included.

Go here for a complete listing of all images/text available for this event.

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