PORT ORCHARD — As a new winter windstorm winds up to hit the Puget Sound region tonight and Thursday, teams of emergency first responders are working relentlessly to inspect approximately 250 homes and commercial buildings damaged by Tuesday’s East Port Orchard tornado for structural damage, electrical issues and natural gas leaks that could prevent residents from returning home or to their business.
The estimated number of structures damaged by the tornado was downsized from 450, Dave Rasmussen of the Kitsap County Emergency Management office said Wednesday evening.
A team of law enforcement and emergency response officials staged a news media briefing Wednesday morning at Walmart’s Bethel Avenue location to provide a news media update on the progress made to inspect damaged buildings.
Late Wednesday, a team from the National Weather Service surveyed the damage and rated the tornado as a “strong EF2” with peak winds of between 120 and 130 miles per hour.
While acknowledging that residential and commercial building owners are impatient to resume some sense of normalcy, South Kitsap Fire and Rescue assistant fire chief Jeff Faucett said mutual-aid teams, including firefighters from around Kitsap County, are carefully checking for hazardous conditions that might lead to injuries.
Faucett said emergency teams made a sweep of locations impacted by the tornado in the initial hours after it struck with lightning speed just before 2 p.m. Hardest hit were homes just east of the Walmart store on Bethel Avenue. Several of the homes in the area of Harris Road and Tiburon Court were severely damaged by the twister. A two-story home on Tiburon had its entire roof lifted as the storm raked the location.
According to the team of storm evaluators, the tornado dropped down at Geiger Road, near Sedgwick, and quickly moved northeast. It then crossed the busy Bethel Avenue arterial near Salmonberry, roughly at the area in which the Bethel Saloon and Bethel Square shopping area are located.
A multi-functional team from SKFR, Puget Sound Energy, Cascade Natural Gas, Kitsap County Department of Community Development and the Port Orchard Department of Community Development reported Wednesday afternoon that it has inspected 104 of approximately 450 structures damaged by the tornado.
Of the 104 inspected structures, the team labeled six with red tags (unsafe and dangerous to occupy). Four were assessed with yellow tags, or having limited entry and off-limits to unauthorized personnel. That designation indicates the structure has been damaged and its safety is questionable, with entry undertaken at one’s own risk.
Ninety-four green tags were assessed to structures. Those structures have been inspected and judged to have no restrictions on their use or occupancy.
The inspection team stated that homeowners with proper identification need to check in with law enforcement at the location of road closures to gain access to the restricted area.
In addition, homeowners who are working with contractors, insurance adjusters or other professionals who need access should go to the Christian Life Center at 1780 SE Lincoln Ave. SE to speak with staff at Incident Command.
Rob Putaansuu, Port Orchard’s mayor, told news media members that the level of cooperation and professionalism of the multi-purpose emergency teams “over the past 24 hours has been phenomenal.”
He said considering the amount of devastation wrought by the tornado and finding that there are no known injuries “is difficult to believe.”
The mayor said his office and various departments within City Hall have been overwhelmed with phone calls from residents wanting to help victims.
“When it comes to the holiday season, of course, we’re going to want to help our friends and neighbors put their lives back together,” Putaansuu said.
“That leads to the next stage, but right now we’re still in the assessment stage.”
Faucett told the gathering that for the time being, emergency teams are still in a response mode.
“We have so much damage out there, our first priority is that before we start putting power and gas back on to some of these structures, we want to make sure we can — or can’t.”
The assistant fire chief said he understands the desire to volunteer, but stressed that there will be plenty of opportunities to do so — just not now.
“Right now, we’re holding that back until we can get that assessed. We don’t want the crews to be conflicting with each other,” Faucett said. “If you’re a volunteer, we ask that you come to the Bethel command site and [engage in] the check-inj process.”