A pair of strong tornadoes spun through northeastern Pennsylvania late Wednesday leaving destruction in Wilkes-Barre and nearby Bradley County, the National Weather Service confirmed Thursday.
NWS teams on Thursday toured damage left behind by the severe storms that destroyed homes and shopping centers, smashed cars and left at least six people injured late Wednesday night.
The destruction in Wilkes-Barre — about 110 miles north of Philadelphia — was consistent with an EF-2 tornado, meaning the average wind speed reached between 111 and 135 mph, the NWS said.
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Investigators said winds likely hit 130 mph as the tornado traveled about half a mile after first touching down near the Wyoming Valley Mall.
The team in Bradford County had not released a preliminary report saying how strong the tornado was that touched down in Franklin Township as of Thursday afternoon.
Investigators said, "structures were sheared off near their foundation" when describing the damage. 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.
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 by off gassing the contents early 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 the hospital.
Gov. Tom Wolf toured the damage with reporters and first-responders Thursday afternoon 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.