Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Arena Hub Plaza tornado, June 13, 2018

Last night a tornado tore across the Arena Hub Plaza in Wilkes-Barre Township.

It really wasn't a surprise. We had plenty of warning. A Tornado Warning box was drawn up just west of Nanticoke until 9:45 PM. After it passed, another box was drawn up - including Nanticoke, and extending east through Wilkes-Barre, Wilkes-Barre Township, and beyond. It would expire in a half-hour or so. We watched and waited. At one point my phone flared up with an alert. I think that was just about 10:00 PM.

It rained, hard, for a while. The wind blew hard for a bit, too. But the storm passed over us without so much as a shingle through the front window.

Then we got a call that Barnes & Noble at the Arena Hun Plaza in Wilkes-Barre Township had collapsed. And not just Barnes & Noble. Panera Bread had allegedly collapsed, too.

Photographers and first responders arrived on the scene. Nighttime shots showed devastation: twisted metal, scattered rubble, cars flipped and destroyed. Buildings collapsed. And the rumors started: numerous deaths, many missing, widespread looting.

But the reality of the situation gradually unfolded. Despite all the damage, nobody had died, or even been seriously injured. Six people had been slightly injured in Panera Bread, which had been torn open and massively damaged. But that was it. The tornado (confirmed as an F2) had hit around 10:00, when most of the businesses in the area were closed or closing. The path of destruction started at U-Haul and Ken Pollock Nissan just off Mundy Street. It cut through Music-Go-Round, Panera Bread, clipped Barnes & Noble, and continued through Dick's Sporting Goods - a straight line distance of less than half a mile. In all, twenty-six stores were damaged or destroyed, and a propane tank was damaged, filling the area with heavier-than-air flammable gas.

Red dots indicate approximate path of tornado. Orange indicates places that could have resulted in numerous casualties if hit by a tornado.
Official National Weather Service report. Click to read.

It was a best case / worst case scenario. Had the tornado taken a slightly different path, it might have torn through Highland Park Senior Living, a retirement community with hundreds of residents, or the Veterans' Administration Medical Center, a hospital with hundreds of beds, or through a housing development just to the east of the Arena Hub Plaza, or a still-open Walmart, or the Mohegan Sun Arena, or any of a number of hotels, or torn apart Interstate 81. Had it arrived an hour or two earlier, it would have hit stores and restaurants full of customers. But it didn't. It hit a bunch of mostly-empty stores, and caused massive property damage but no major injuries.

But it hit the concentrated heart of retail in the greater Wilkes-Barre area. It has done tens of millions of dollars of property damage, and the damage to the local economy through the temporary or permanent loss of jobs and sales tax revenue and the consequences of those losses could go into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Hundreds of people have lost their jobs. Some of those jobs will never come back.

Barnes and Noble stood for about twenty-five years. The chain pledges to rebuild.

But in those twenty-five years, the Arena Hub Plaza has never been hit by a storm like this. In fifty years, my mother's house has never had a shingle put through its front window, or had shingles ripped off its own roof. All of these things have happened now in a span of eight weeks.

My friends in Maryland who perform at a Renaissance Faire have noted that each year the weather is becoming more intense and erratic, to the point that they are talking about moving the Faire inside, perhaps into one of the many now-vacant shopping malls.

Things are changing. Weather is changing. The climate is changing.

Welcome to the new normal.

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