Businesses and residents reeling in aftermath of tornadoes, floods

The GMC Dealership in Bensalem, Pa., suffered major damage due to a tornado that touched down on the evening of Thursday, July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The GMC Dealership in Bensalem, Pa., suffered major damage due to a tornado that touched down on the evening of Thursday, July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Alex Salazar wasn’t hurt in the tornado that decimated the car dealership in Trevose where he has worked for a year as a salesman.

But he did lose track of his wallet.

Salazar, 29, was among the dozens of people Friday milling, somewhat shell-shocked, around the Faulkner dealership on Street Rd. in Bucks County after Thursday night’s storm.

The GMC Dealership in Bensalem, Pa., suffered major damage. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The dealership has several buildings, and all sustained different levels of damage. Some have broken windows and battered exteriors, another lost most of its roof, with wires and insulation dangling, and one building was almost fully demolished.

Salazar was in the now-roofless building, a Buick GMC dealership.

“All of a sudden, everything started shaking and the roof started coming apart,” he said. “It sounds like a movie, but cars started flying, a pole was getting ripped up, trees started flying. It was insane. It was crazy.”

The GMC Dealership in Bensalem, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

He and the other workers left quickly — so quickly that Salazar left all his belongings in the drawer of his desk. He’s not sure what’s going to happen now — if the dealership will be rebuilt, or if he and his coworkers will be reassigned. But he’s just glad things weren’t worse.

“Nobody really got hurt,” he said. “Everything that is material will be recovered, it’s OK.”

There were a dozen or so injuries reported around the Bensalem area after the tornadoes, but Bucks officials say they haven’t logged any fatalities from the storm.

They’re still assessing the extent of the damage, though.

Residents of the Penn Valley Terrace in Lower Bucks County are cleaning up after a tornado ripped through the complex on Thursday, July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The storm was one of two confirmed tornadoes that touched down in the Bensalem area Thursday night. Fred Harran, Bensalem’s public safety director, told the Bucks Courier Times that the main destruction happened along a path that started in Concord Park, hit the Liconia neighborhood, then the dealership, and then the nearby Penn Valley Terrace mobile home park, before heading a little farther east and dissipating.

Longtime Bensalem mayor Joseph DiGirolamo said he had been out for most of the night checking the fallout, and was back at it Friday morning. He described the aftermath as “mega-damage.”

Apart from the car dealership, he has concentrated most of his recovery efforts at the mobile homes. About 15 are totally destroyed, he said, and 30 or so others have major damage. Several of the displaced families spent last night sheltering in the Neshaminy Mall, and DiGirolamo says the town is now working with the Red Cross to find them more permanent places.

Several of the displaced families spent last night sheltering in the Neshaminy Mall, and Red Cross workers have set up a more official shelter at Neshaminy High School. DiGirolamo says the town is now working with the Red Cross to find them more permanent places to live, if they can’t return to their houses.

Liz Barr, 69, is one of those people looking for another place to stay. For 22 years, she has lived in Penn Valley Terrace on a quiet street. She had paid attention to the tornado alerts Thursday evening, she said, and had actually just gotten on the phone with a friend to say it looked like the storm had missed her when, as she put it, “wham.”

“I blinked, almost, and it was done,” she said. “But it left behind a lot of damage.”

Right now Barr’s street, Aster Ave., looks every bit like it just got hit by a tornado. On Friday afternoon, debris is still everywhere. The heavy concrete front steps of a vacant house were totally detached and blown into the road, about forty feet away. A path of downed trees cuts through the development; nearby, a crew of electricians briefly paused their work on the electrical lines to take out chainsaws and cut a man’s motorcycle out of some heavy branches, improbably undamaged.

The damage to Barr’s property was among the worst in the development. Two windows on her house shattered, as did the back window of her car. She’ll need to replace a lot of the siding on her house, as well as the skirting, and her roof lost enough shingles that she fears she may have to replace it.

But as she sat on her front porch, listening to generators humming, eating Chinese takeout, and waiting for the rental car she’ll take to the hotel where she plans to stay for the time being, Barr said she’s feeling surprisingly zen.

Roofers arrived early this morning to offer their services, and she’s already spoken with her car and home insurers. She’s pretty sure everything is covered.

“I’m so impatient in most things,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Let’s do it right the first time, let’s do it now.’ But what are you going to do? The plan will come together.”

Barr’s neighbor of 16 years, Bill Boxenbaum, 72, has developed a similar outlook. When the storm started to hit, he was looking out his window, “sort of hypnotized” until the outer pane of the window shattered. Thankfully, he said, the inner one held.

“I just feel lucky,” he said. “The damage to the homes can be repaired, and everyone I talked to seems to be OK.”

All Friday, onlookers gathered along Street Road to look at the damage to the car dealership. Many worked at the dealership, or had family who did. One woman was coordinating a food delivery for her coworkers who were stuck assessing losses; another woman was looking for a way to recover the belongings of her son who was working in the building that is now mostly razed. He was uninjured.

Residents of the Penn Valley Terrace in Lower Bucks County are cleaning up after a tornado ripped through the complex on Thursday, July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Tom Boyle, who was born and raised in the area, says the last couple of weeks have been shocking, weather-wise.

Two weeks ago, flash floods caused extensive damage at properties in lower Bucks, many of which weren’t covered by insurance. County officials were just starting to report progress on getting people some relief through state and federal programs for the damage when the tornadoes hit.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my whole life,” he said. “Sixty years.”

Residents of the Penn Valley Terrace in Lower Bucks County are cleaning up after a tornado ripped through the complex on Thursday, July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

DiGirolamo, who has also lived in the area his whole life, agreed. He noted, the flooding had hit the lower part of Bensalem, and the tornado hit the upper end. In the two weeks between those two disasters, the township also weathered a major windstorm.

“I’m scared to death of another storm right now,” he said.

On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) would make financial aid available to state residents impacted by the July 12 flooding. The state hasn’t yet authorized disaster funding for any of the storms, but DiGirolamo said he thinks there’s a chance this latest calamity will “put us over the threshold.”

Salazar, meanwhile, had some practical advice for anyone who might find themselves in the path of an unexpected Pennsylvania tornado.

“Pay more attention to the alerts,” he said, noting ruefully that he had ignored the tornado warning that popped up on his phone. “The weather people got it right this time.”

Storm damage from Hopewell, N.J. (P. Kenneth Burns / WHYY)

Aftermath in NJ

The Pleasant Valley section of Hopewell Township in Mercer County was also among the hardest hit in the region.

“I was cooking dinner and all of a sudden the sky turned black, trees started bending over, and there it was,” said Deborah Taylor, one of several residents WHYY News spoke with along Fiddler’s Creek Road.

Taylor spent Friday morning with her husband picking up branches from trees, she said, that came from a wooded area behind their home.

She said the storm path that traveled through that wooded area is now flattened. “From the upstairs windows, you can see all the trees that used to be there are gone,” Taylor said.

Hopewell Township is not far from New Hope, Pa. where a tornado was confirmed. The National Weather Service in Mt. Holly, N.J. has several teams investigating storm damage in several areas, including a zone that stretches from south of Allentown, Pa. towards Monmouth County, N.J. The weather service said it is also investigating parts of Ocean County as well.

As of 1:16 p.m. Tuesday, two tornadoes were confirmed in Ocean County in the Waretown and Cedar Bridge areas of Barnegat Township.

Power lines were taken down by falling trees in Pleasant Valley. Utility crews were in the area to work on restoring service while tree cutters worked on clearing the debris. As of Friday morning, more than 500 customers were without electricity, most of them serviced by Jersey Central Power and Light. Though roads were closed, residents were still able to leave to get gasoline for their generators or run other errands.

Michael Hicks had just left the house for groceries before the storm had started to move through. He said things started to look eerie as he was driving along Pennington Harbourton Road

“As I was passing an open field with a large home, I saw a herd of deer [that] looked like they were panicked,” he said, “they were running back and forth throughout the field.”

Hicks’ wife called to let him know of similar conditions back at home.

Storm damage from Hopewell, N.J. (P. Kenneth Burns / WHYY)

“[She said] she’s bringing the kids down into the basement to try and hide and stay safe with the dog,” he said.

On the way back from the store, his wife informed him the big oak tree in the backyard had fallen.

“She said there was no noise, but the tree itself just came crashing down,” Hicks said.

The tree fell away from the house and back towards the woods. He says they were fortunate.

“Everyone’s good, everyone is safe,” he said.

Taylor expressed similar gratitude that the damage was not worse than what it was.

“We are blessed,” she said. “We have storage bins with wheat stored back there, that’s OK. We have equipment back there, the barns are standing.”

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