Western Pennsylvania Hams Respond as Tornado Sweeps Through Area
At approximately 4:30 on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 23, severe thunderstorms started to roll into Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, producing golf ball-sized hail and heavy winds. Members of the Westmoreland County Public Service/ARES® group began to meet on the W3CRC repeater in Derry, Pennsylvania, which serves as the main ARES®/SKYWARN repeater in Westmoreland County. Soon after, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the area and the Public Service Net was opened formally at 5 PM. Walter Bashaw, W3ZEH, began taking check-ins and reports of severe weather, relaying them to the NWS in Pittsburgh.
“Hams reported a funnel cloud near the Fort Allen and greater Greensburg area to net control, and this information was reported to WX3PIT -- the Amateur Radio station at the NWS office in Pittsburgh -- 15 minutes before it was reported on the local TV stations,” ARRL Westmoreland County Emergency Coordinator Chuck Mills, W3YNI, told the ARRL. “The storm continued to move east toward Latrobe, where additional large sized hail was reported.”
Ralph Ofchinick, W3ZPI, and Jay Schall, KB3NSJ, activated the ham station at the Greensburg Emergency Operations Center, and continued to provide communications support. At 5:30 PM, a second, but not quite as strong storm, moved through the area, producing additional heavy rain and hail. Rick Varnise, K3EPV, deployed to a shelter in Hempfield Township that had been set up for victims of the tornado.
Mills said that the NWS classified the tornado as an F2 in strength, with winds topping 120 MPH. Many homes in the area were destroyed or damaged as the tornado continued along its seven mile path. Westmoreland County Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Dan Stevens said that the tornado destroyed at least 30 homes and damaged at least 90. There were no reports of serious injuries.