SOMERSET, PA. — Springtime is a season of hope and rebirth, but for many, in Somerset County, it is also a time of uneasiness and fear.
In just a few weeks, county residents will mark the 15th anniversary of a series of events that has left an indelible mark on their lives and the landscape.
Sunday, May 31, 1998, began as a typical spring day, but by 9 p.m., everything changed in the southern portion of the county, when an F2 tornado ripped through the small town of Salisbury and surrounding areas. The twister killed one resident, injured 15 and destroyed 28 businesses and many homes along its 10-mile path.
Just two days later, residents were dealt a second blow, when a second storm system produced an F3 twister that swept through the region, destroying homes in southern Somerset County and reaching into the Finzel and Frostburg areas.
Eric Shaulis and his family were among those affected by the second round of storms. They were stunned when Salisbury was destroyed and never imagined that just 48 hours later they would face their own disaster. Their home in Laurel Falls was completely destroyed by the funnel cloud as they huddled in their basement. Thankfully, Shaulis, his wife and three young children escaped injury.
Prior to the storm outbreak, Shaulis said, he and many other residents never imagined that Somerset County would be hit by one, let alone three tornadoes, in as many days.
“I think many of us were under the assumption that because we live in the mountain area, that tornadoes were not possible,” Shaulis explained.
The skill and expertise of emergency personnel was something he knew they possessed, but his faith in their efforts sky-rocketed in the days following the tornadoes.
“The tornado came through Laurel Falls at 9:30 p.m. on June 2, 1998; within an hour, 911 was notified that no one was injured in our area, saving firemen from trying to reach us in the dark, with trees and power lines down everywhere,” Shaulis explained. “The next morning, the firemen, with many helpers, laid a plan together to reach us. It did not take them long to reach us, and to continue through the area checking the other properties. I have complete confidence in the abilities of the emergency officials in our area in preparation, and reaction, to natural disasters. Even in 1998, with very little experience, we could have not asked for more out of the local fire departments. They had a plan when it all unfolded.”
In the hours following the Salisbury tornado, emergency personnel quickly responded to offer aid and support for those affected. However, despite their best efforts, personnel quickly found that there was no access to electricity and roads were blocked, filled with debris from destroyed buildings and trees.
Joel Landis, hazmat logistics/training officer of the Somerset County Department of Emergency Services, and Rick Lohr, executive director of Somerset County 911, were among the hundreds of first responders during the tornado outbreaks.
“We have in place procedures and programs as a result of the storms in 1998. Every disaster is teachable; we can always learn and improve our responses,” Landis explained. “We can learn something every time there is a disaster. For example, there are many lessons to be learned following the Boston Marathon bombing and the explosion at the Texas fertilizer plant.”
Somerset County has been in the unique and unfortunate position to respond to several unusual events in addition to the 1998 tornadoes.
“We have faced the crash of Flight 93 and later the rescue mission of the collapse of the Quecreek Mine. We face, every year, changeable weather, that can include extreme heat, cold and quickly rising waters. We quickly realized we have to be ready for anything,” Landis added. “Local responders are the first line of defense in any situation, whether it be firefighters or EMS, their dedication is unmatched.”
The Somerset County Department of Emergency Services hosts several classes on various emergency preparedness topics. Most recently, Landis helped organize a class called Skywarn Spotter, a voluntary program in which the public can participate and interact with the local National Weather Service Office.
In many cases, people feel helpless in the face of diasters, but Lohr said there are several simple steps every family can take that can not only empower them, but could also prove life-saving.
“Be aware of your surroundings. Every one family, every home needs to have an emergency plan and an emergency go kit, that provides substantiality of food, water, medications and a power source, if possible for 72 hours,” Lohr explained.
Though the disasters that have occurred in Somerset County have been costly, in many ways, Lohr said these events served to highlight the importance of volunteer personnel and the role they play.
“Volunteer personnel are often the life-blood of communities. Everyone pulling together is how we weather any emergency. I believe that is true of any area in any situation,” Lohr added.
Contact Angie Brant at abrant@ times-news.com.
Tornado - Restaurant - The landscape and lives of the residents of Salisbury were changed forever following an F2 tornado that hit at approximately 9 p.m. on May 31, 1998. Damage from the tornado, with a path of more than eight miles long and 250 yards wide, resulted in the death of a 13-year old child, and more than 15 residents were injured. Numerous homes, businesses and two churches were damaged and, in some cases, destroyed by the fierce winds, including the former O’Donnells Old Firehouse Restaurant.
Tornado - Salisbury - Many homes were completely destroyed as a result of an F2 tornado that swept through the small town of Salisbury on May 31, 1998.
Tornado - Pocahontas- This former school, located in Pocahontas, sustained severe damage during the May 31, 1998, tornado, along with many homes and farms. This was the first of two tornadic storm systems to pass through Somerset County in less than 48 hours.
Tornado - Book - The Times-News produced “Weathering the Storm” as a way to document disasters that occurred in the 1990s.