MIDDLESBORO — Surveying the shingles splayed like cards and the metal roofs curled like cake icing by a tornado, Middlesboro police Lt. Tom Busic said Thursday, "We were extremely lucky. We were blessed."
He could say that because there were no reported deaths or injuries after a tornado turned a section of North 19th Street upside down Tuesday.
"It was like a bomb went off down here when it first happened," Busic said. "The road was entirely covered with pieces of roof and debris."
But North 19th, which had been blocked to through traffic, was reopened Thursday afternoon. And business owners were recovering from the damage, confined to a commercial/warehouse district north of downtown.
When the tornado struck about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, businesses along the two-block stretch of North 19th already had closed for the day, so there weren't many people around, Busic said.
The National Weather Service estimated the tornado's winds at 105 to 110 mph when it struck Hickman Building Supplies Inc., said Paul Wilson, emergency management director for Bell County. By the time the eastbound twister crossed some railroad tracks and slightly damaged the roof of Middlesboro Mall off U.S. 25E, the winds had decreased to 80 mph, Wilson said.
The path of damage was about 500 yards wide and six-tenths of a mile long, Wilson said.
Tuesday's tornado was nothing like the one in May 1988 that killed a woman; seriously damaged 24 homes, two churches and 38 businesses; and caused moderate to minor damage to 142 homes and 82 businesses. That twister cost millions of dollars.
Among the worst-hit properties in Tuesday's storm was Hickman Building Supplies. It's owned by Ben Hickman, 80, who has been mayor of Middlesboro since 1994. The tornado tore into five of Hickman's 12 buildings.
The winds lifted the roof off a shed that contained treated wood; demolished a concrete-block shed that housed water heaters, roof coatings, light fixtures and nails; and curled the roof on another warehouse that held bath fixtures and hardwood flooring.
Hickman's son Benny, 47, guessed the damage will be $250,000 to $300,000, although an insurance adjustor had not completed an estimate.
The building supplies company was open to serve customers Thursday. Middlesboro Mall needed about 45 gallons of roof coating, and Hickman had it for them.
Meanwhile, Elmer Kincaid, president of Four Rivers Coal Co. across the street, must find temporary office space after the tornado clawed at the company's office.
"It got our office building and our scale house, too," Kincaid said. "There was roof damage, and ... it threw a 2-by-4 through the wall and knocked a filing cabinet. There was a lot of electrical damage to our tipple and processing plant."
Kincaid estimated the damage at $30,000 to $50,000.
Worldwide Equipment Inc., which sells Mack and Kenworth trucks, had 15 overhead doors damaged on its service garage and had roof damage, operations manager Duane McDaniel said.
But Thankful Baptist Church, a tidy brick building four blocks south of the worst damage on North 19th Street, appeared unscathed. Its congregation is no doubt thankful.