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Nearly 10,000 people in Shelby found themselves without power Wednesday night after a vicious thunderstorm rolled through the county, tearing huge trees out of the ground by the roots as if they were matchsticks.
Power was knocked out to several traffic lights, including the intersection at U.S. 60 and Freedom’s Way when the storm hit at 9 p.m.
At Collins High School, the conclusion of the awards ceremony for seniors ended abruptly when Principal John Leeper took the stage – just as the sound of driving rain began to echo in the theater – and announced that a tornado warning had been issued and ordered everyone to take shelter in the center of the building.
By the next morning, the county was littered with debris from the two storms, the second of which hit around 2 a.m., especially on Main Street.
Kentucky Utilities Crews were still feverishly at work, clearing away several huge trees that brought down power lines that dangled at numerous points along the street down onto sidewalks and yards, some still tangled in limbs.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Tom Reaugh said the storm was actually not a tornado, but what he called a very severe “bow echo” thunderstorm, so called because it is bow-shaped on radar.
“As it moved through the county, it put down some very strong straight line winds, as opposed to circular winds in a tornado,” he said. “Those strong winds moved through much of the county, and took down a lot of trees.”
Reaugh said that winds peaked at around 60 mph, and that two inches of rain fell in a very short space of time.
“It came down hard and fast,” he said, adding that some areas even experienced hail.
And that was only in the early evening, he said.
“We had a couple of rounds of storms,” he said. “Shelby was one of the hardest hit in the evening and we had another round of storms come through from Fort Knox down to Campbellsville that did quite a bit of damage as well, but those missed Shelby County for the most part.”
Reaugh said that even though the storm turned out not to be a tornado, people should take a severe thunderstorm warning – such as was issued for Shelby Wednesday night – very seriously.
“Sometimes people will say, ‘oh, it’s just a severe thunderstorm warning,’ but it’s not a good idea to take that lightly, because severe thunderstorms can put out winds that are just as strong as tornadoes that can do damage like we’re seeing today,” he said.
Shelby County Emergency Management Agency Director Paul Whitman said that nearly 10,000 people were without power at the onset of the storm, outages that affected homes, businesses, traffic lights and even 911 dispatch.
“Dispatch had some issues caused by power surges, and we had to get the generators going,” he said.
Shelby County Public Schools’ district office was without power until shortly before noon Thursday, and the district’s server was knocked out, leaving schools with no Internet service. But no schools were without power, said SCPS spokesperson Ryan Allen.
Chris Whelan, media spokesperson for KU, said that at 9 p.m., 6,700 customers were without power in Shelby, leaving leaving about 3,300 for Shelby Energy.
By 4 a.m., KU crews had restored power all but 1,900 homes, and by 7 a.m. Thursday morning only 800 remained without power.
Shelby Energy officials said that they had 332 customers still without power.
Whelan said she expected the remaining KU customers to have electricity restored by midnight.
Whelan said that most of the outages were due to trees falling on power lines.
“The straight line winds knocked down a lot of trees; in our system, Shelby and Danville were the hardest hit,” she said, adding that KU had 24,000 customers out altogether.
Surprisingly, not too many motorists had to worry about wrecked vehicles; both city and county law enforcement said they had no major issues with accidents during the storm.
They reported that traffic lights remained out at U.S. 60 and the bypass and at Washington Street and Smithfield Roads in the early part of the day Thursday.
Many residents had some storm-related damage, both in town and in more rural areas.
A couple of the county’s schools sustained some minor damage, Allen said, including cosmetic damage at West Middle and some shingles were blown off at Simpsonville Elementary.
A huge tree was uprooted on a lawn on U.S. 60 and Sen. Paul Hornback, who has farms in a couple of locations, said he knew of one man that had a roof damaged on a tobacco storehouse on U.S. 60 as well.
“Me, I had some trees down; I’m out here fixing a fence right now,” he said Thursday morning.
Patricia Winlock, a counselor at Shelby County High School, said her power went out when a tree fell in her yard on Mount Eden Road.
“I don’t have power at my home and won’t have it for quite a while – a tree fell down and it ripped my electrical lines and the phone wires at my house,” she said.
Dozens of people shared their experiences – and even some photos – of their storm damage on The Sentinel-News’ Facebook page.
There were many reports of fallen trees, limbs and other storm debris in yards, roof damage, and even huge privacy fences blown down.
Said Lori Glass at Pathelen Florist: “Going to be a long night, no power and main power line pulled out of the back of the house, not to mention a tree laying on our van.”
Tapps Feed on Kentucky Street sustained major damage, said manager Scott Summitt.
He noted the building’s roof had been peeled back, the bay door was blown inside the building and the concrete wall on one side was blown completely down.
“We lost quite a bit of product, and we have major structural damage, but we’re still open for business,” he said.
Summitt said that even though weather officials say Shelby did not have a tornado touch down, he doesn’t believe that.
“I can’t see straight line winds doing something like this,” he said. “It had to have been a tornado; you can just look at it for yourself and use your common sense.”
Shelby Circuit Clerk Lowry Miller said he was watching the storm out his bedroom window last night at his home on Harrington Mill, when a large oak tree – 50 feet tall – snapped off at the base.
“I yelled out at to Masha [his wife], ‘hey, there’s a tree falling,’” he said.
Miller said the tree came down on top of the house. He said he wouldn’t be able to see the extent of the damage until it’s removed, but at least the roof isn’t leaking – yet.
Miller said he didn’t think that tree would ever have fallen.
“We’ve lived there for sixteen years, and I don’t know how old it is, but I didn’t think it would have ever come down in my lifetime,” he said.
He added that upon examining the tree the next morning, it appeared to be decayed inside.
Walt Reichert, horticulture extension technician, said that scenario played a part in most of the large trees that were blown down in the storm.
“A lot of them were rotted, and were weak or damaged and dying; I don’t think we had many healthy trees blown down, unless they were hit by a falling tree,” he said.
A lot of property damage was caused by those huge trees falling on houses, he said.
“The lesson to be learned from this is you have to be careful when you plant trees,” he said. “A lot of people plant them too close to houses and sidewalks. I know you can’t blame somebody who’s been dead for a hundred years, but you have to try to envision what that tree is going to look like fifty years from now.”
Reaugh said he expects Mother Nature will atone for her behavior.
“It’s going to be beautiful; it looks like we’re going to have a really nice holiday weekend,” he said.