Hurricane Irene produces possible Delaware tornado

Sussex County has emerged from Hurricane Irene in relatively good shape, officials say, with the worst of the damage being caused by a possible tornado that touched down in Lewes.

Gov. Jack Markell, who has lifted Delaware’s mandatory evacuation order and travel restrictions, toured the county Sunday afternoon with other officials to assess damage. The worst of it appears to be in and around the Nassau Station and Tradewind Estates subdivisions southwest of Lewes, where fire company officials report as many as 50 structures have sustained some type of damage from a possible tornado Saturday evening. Some of the homes, according to fire officials, are beyond repair.

One of those homes belongs to Jack Holloway, who told WHYY he was happy he obeyed the governor’s order to evacuate the coast. When Holloway was permitted to return to the property Sunday he saw that his house had sustained significant structural harm and was not in a livable condition.

The National Weather Service will have to make the final determination as to whether the damage was the result of a tornado.

For Holloway, and thousands of other Sussex County residents and business owners, the task of cleaning up and assessing damage is now underway.

The Delaware Department of Transportation reports that most roads and bridges in Sussex County are passable at this time. However, some communities along the Delaware Bay coastline, including Slaughter Beach, Prime Hook and Broadkill Beach, have water on roadways, and may be limited or inaccessible to motorists. Early reports indicate Prime Hook Road is washed out in some sections and may be impassable for a prolonged period.

“It doesn’t look like we experienced the significant flooding forecasters were predicting, and the damage is certainly not widespread and catastrophic. So that’s the great news in all of this,” said Joseph L. Thomas, director of the Sussex County Emergency Operations Center. “We are very fortunate to have come out of this like we have. But there is work ahead, and it will take time before life gets back to normal for everyone.”

Delaware has received a federal disaster declaration, which paves the way for the State to receive federal assistance – depending on the amount of damage – to cover costs related to the storm and subsequent cleanup.

First responders and emergency managers are continuing damage assessments now that Hurricane Irene is exiting the region. At this hour, it appears most damage throughout the county has been limited to downed trees and power lines, roof leaks, and minor tidal flooding.

Three of four shelters designated for the county have now closed. The only shelter that remains open is at Milford High School, where 15 evacuees remained as of midday.

Power crews are working to repair outages scattered across the county. The latest reports from our utilities show approximately 16,000 customers without power [approximately 3,000 on Delmarva Power; approximately 13,200 on Delaware Electric Coop]. Visit www.delmarva.com and www.delaware.coop to view outage maps.

Sussex County can breathe a sigh of relief as the decision was made late Sunday to reopen the  Indian River inlet bridge. That portion of Route 1 was closed Saturday to allow DelDOT engineers to check whether the structure was weakened by Irene’s pounding along the coast. The storm couldn’t come at worse time for the beach communities in Delaware. They lost this weekend to the storm and face the possibility of Route 113 as the main route to the lower Delaware beaches. But officials also know it could have been a lot worse.

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