Sussex County, including concentrated areas near Laurel, was impacted heavily by a very strong weather band that resulted in significant tornado activity in the early morning hours of Monday, April 15.
Investigators with the National Weather Service said on Monday afternoon that the tornado that hit near Laurel and along the U.S. 9 corridor was identified as an “EF-2” tornado. It had estimated maximum winds of 120 miles per hour and struck near Laurel at about 3:38 a.m. According to federal weather officials, the tornado’s path stretched about 6.2 miles and had a maximum width that extended to 400 yards at times.
On Monday morning, emergency crews were busy doing clean up what in many cases resembled the aftermath of a massive explosion. Along Delaware 20, near Hardscrabble, and Bakers Mill Road just off Asbury Road, debris from homes, farm buildings and trees were scattered, with structural debris seen in fields miles away. Likewise, along Seaford Road (US 13) near Laurel, similar scenes were present as damage from the heavy winds, rain and tornado ravished the landscape destroying homes, out buildings, vehicles and toppling and snapping trees in its path. Along US 13 North, a warehouse building housing the Utz Potato Chips business was also destroyed and a delivery truck overturned as the tornado made its way southeast.
Mike Lowe, Laurel Fire Department Assistant Chief and public relations officer, said the tornado appeared to have started just south of Bethel, and traveled east across Woodland Ferry Road, moving south of the Laurel Village Mobile Home Park before crossing US 13 toward Mirey Branch Road. Lowe said he and Laurel fire crews were busy dealing with area emergencies and he could not speculate on the path of the storm as it moved toward the Hardscrabble area.
“We were just so fortunate that this missed Laurel Village Mobile Home Park,” Lowe said. “There has been substantial property damage during this storm, but we still feel fortunate that it wasn’t any worse.”
Chip Guy, Sussex County Communications Director, was among those emergency officials working out of the Laurel Fire Department on Monday to help assess the aftermath of the Monday morning storm. He said that once the tornado apparently crossed over US 13, it made its way down Camp Road and forged a linear path that ran parallel with U.S. 9.
The owners of the Cherrix Farm, which is located along Camp Road, said they feel extraordinarily fortunate that the path of the storm missed their residence. Karen Cherrix said she was awakened in the early morning hours by a loud noise that she thought may have been hail pounding on the roof of the house. “It was pitch black outside, so we could see nothing until we noticed the lights of the emergency vehicles that had gathered along the roadway. It wasn’t until it started getting light outside that we saw that two chicken houses and two sheds had been completely destroyed,” she said.
Cherrix said there were no chickens in the houses, which had been vacant for many years. One of the sheds contained tools and the other housed a farm wagon and tractor. Both were completely demolished with only the concrete foundations remaining. “The tractor was still standing, but it was completely wrapped by the tin from the shed. It actually looked like it was wrapped in bacon, it was that tightly wrapped,” she said. She said her home, which is located fewer than 100 yards from the chicken houses, was fine. In addition, a building housing the family vehicles, located about 25 yards from the destroyed tool shed, was also unharmed. “We definitely feel very fortunate,” she said.
As of Monday afternoon, Lowe said he was only aware of one injury connected to the storm. This involved an incident along Seaford Road in which a home was struck by a fallen pecan tree. The force of the tree and its impact on the home left a young woman trapped inside the home while emergency workers, including her father, worked to free her.
After about 20 minutes, she was rescued safely with only scratches and bruises. Her father injured his back during the rescue effort and was taken to Nanticoke Memorial Hospital for treatment.
The Weather Service is still researching data to determine the exact path of the tornado.
As of Tuesday morning, it is estimated that the tornado started northwest of Laurel about 3:38 a.m., April 15, and ended near Hardscrabble. It had an estimated maximum wind speed of 120 miles per hour and its path was estimated to be 50 yards wide, but may have been up to 400 yards wide at one point.
The federal weather service uses the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Tornado Intensity System Scale to measure the strength of identified tornados. The scale is named after Dr. Ted Fujita, a severe storm research scientist who developed the initial Fujita Scale in 1971.
In recent years the scale has been slightly revised to recognize what is now the “Enhanced Fujita (EF)” scale. The EF Scale starts at an EF-0 tornado, with estimated wind speeds between 65 and 85 miles per hours and “light” damage potential.
Early Monday morning, the federal weather service categorized the Laurel-area tornado as an EF-1 tornado, which is considered capable of “moderate” damage and has a wind speed of between 86 and 110 miles per hour. However, after further research and investigation of actual wind damage in the area, by late Monday afternoon the weather service revised their findings and categorized the tornado as an EF-2, which has wind speeds between 111 and 135 miles per hour.
The EF-2 tornado is described as being capable of “significant” damage, including “roofs torn off frame houses, mobile homes completely destroyed, train boxcars overturned, large trees snapped or uprooted; smaller debris turned into missiles.”
The EF wind scale ranks tornados up to an EF-5, which has winds 200 miles per hour and above, and carries “incredible” damage potential.
During the Monday evening Laurel Mayor and Council meeting, Mayor John Shwed said he visited the emergency command center that had been established at the Laurel Fire Department station house during the aftermath of the storm. He said state Sen. Bryant Richardson and state Rep. Tim Dukes, along with Sussex County Council President Mike Vincent, were also on hand to gain updates from the emergency staff that were operating the center.
“I stopped in at the fire house to thank all those who were working so hard to help us during this storm,” he said. “I met a representative of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency who was traveling by helicopter to assess damages. Other fire companies were coming by to back up Laurel Fire Department during the crisis and Delmarva Power crew were working non-stop throughout the area. Everybody pulls together and it works.”
The emergency command center served as a central point of storm assessment and response, with members of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, Sussex County Emergency Operations Center, Laurel Police Department, Delaware State Police, DEMA and other area emergency responders playing active roles during the weather crisis.
The storm’s aftermath left a number of road closures in the area due to flooding and downed power lines and other destruction. Sussex Tech High School closed early on Monday and the Laurel School District remained closed as of Tuesday due to the storm.