Two tornadoes rip through Southtowns, wreaking havoc

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Two tornadoes tore through the Southtowns during the noon hour Thursday, ripping off roofs, downing trees and cutting power to as many as 23,000 customers.

There was considerable damage at the Hamburg Fairgrounds, especially to the grandstand. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo flew in from New York City to inspect the damage there.

Investigators from the National Weather Service office in Buffalo confirmed the two tornadoes Thursday evening.

The first, which struck about 12:30 p.m., tore a destructive path 5 miles long and as much as 700 feet wide from Hamburg through Orchard Park, hitting Chestnut Ridge Park, the investigators reported. Top winds were estimated at 105 mph.

The second tornado struck in the Town of Holland at about 12:50 p.m., investigators said. They determined that it cut a path 2½ miles long and up to 500 feet wide with top winds estimated at 95 mph.

“Several structures were damaged with a significant amount of tree damage,” the investigators reported. “Roads were blocked and wires were downed. Tracks of the Norfolk Southern Railway were blocked in several places by large downed trees.”

National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Welch said Thursday evening that the two tornadoes were “part of the same storm. It weakened briefly, then the rotation got stronger again.”

Welch noted that NWS investigators will go to northwest Allegany County today to see if a tornado also touched down there.

There were no fatalities or serious injuries associated with the storm, thanks to its timing.

A crew of 20 workmen from Salem Roofing was in their fourth day of repairs to the grandstand roof on the fairgrounds all morning in preparation for the 178th Erie County Fair, which begins Aug. 9, but they had taken a lunch break just before the storm hit, reported Marty Biniasz, the fair’s marketing director. The roof was extensively damaged.

Biniasz said that damage to the fairgrounds was likely to run into the millions and that the Buffalo Raceway harness racing season had been suspended.

“We will do anything we can, that’s why we’re here,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at a news conference Thursday evening at the fairgrounds in front of one of the damaged buildings, where picnic tables had been blown onto the roof.

He said additional crews had been called in from neighboring power companies to help restore electrical service, noting that “half the cases can be easily restored tonight.” Two hundred generators were being provided to assist people who had lost power.

Cuomo added that about 50 additional state troopers also had been called in to assist with traffic and law enforcement and another 100 National Guard personnel would be going to homes and helping to pick up debris.

He praised local officials for their prompt action and cooperation.

“Mother Nature likes to test us, I think,” Cuomo added. “Seven feet of snow – that was a test. Flooding was a test. A tornado was a high-level test. Buffalo and Erie County are ready for it and can handle it. Everyone did exactly what they needed to do.”

“As long as we haven’t lost human life,” he observed, “we’re ahead of the game and that’s what happened here.”

About 450 people were at the fairgrounds when the storm struck, 250 of them in the Hamburg Gaming casino.

One of them was Jim McDonnell. It was his 70th birthday Thursday and he decided to stop by the casino to celebrate.

He was at the slots at about 12:30 p.m. when the lights suddenly shut off and he heard what sounded like a dozen bombs detonating. “We heard: Boom! Boom! And the rain was pouring down like crazy,” he described.

Many local officials immediately assumed it was a true tornado – a rare occurrence in the Buffalo area. The last one to hit Erie County was on June 30, 2006, in Cheektowaga, according to the weather service.

The sudden change in air pressure blew out the windows of at least 100 cars parked outside the casino – including McDonnell’s new 2017 Ford Explorer.

“What a way to celebrate my birthday,” he said.

A video of a car being picked up by the wind and moved several feet went viral after Kevin Karas of Hamburg posted it on social media.

Erie County Fair CEO Dennis Lang described what it looked like at the McKinley Parkway entrance of the fairgrounds as the funnel cloud formed.

“I saw the black clouds start to spin, and everything just kind of raised up,” he said. “I would call it a rotation of clouds. I’m not a weather expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly had my attention.”

After the winds blew through, he assessed the damage. “Power lines are down, the east grandstand lost its roof, lost its announcer’s stand for the race track … it blew out the back wall, our umbrellas that were throughout the fairgrounds have been blown away. Bleachers have been blown away,” he said.

But Lang vowed the Erie County Fair would be ready to open Aug. 9, as scheduled.

From Hamburg, the funnel cloud blasted through Orchard Park, tearing the roofs off several homes.

Orchard Park Supervisor Patrick J. Keem was in a budget meeting in Town Hall when the skies turned dark and the wind picked up.

Police Chief Mark F. Pacholec told him the south end of town, including Chestnut Ridge Park, had been hit, with trees and power lines down and roads closed. “He said it’s real bad. He had a look on his face like he saw a ghost,” Keem said.

“Up by Newton Road, the chief said some trees were ripped in the air and came down right through the roofs of homes,” Keem said.

In West Falls, Elizabeth Czajkowski and her friend Brittany Fallon were hanging out with their children at Czajkowski’s house when a tornado warning sounded on their phones. It was headed straight toward her neighborhood.

Czajkowski grabbed her daughter Autumn and her dog and Fallon picked up her infant son, Cash, and they ran to the basement. “Just as I was getting to the stairs, you could see it. You could see everything spinning branches and leaves everywhere,” she said.

The women and their children stayed in the basement for about 10 minutes. The house was fine but many of the trees in the backyard had fallen. They lost power, too.

In the Town of Holland, Amy Hewson and Marty Benzinger both left work early after hearing about the tornado. They came home to a blocked-off driveway and an uprooted oak tree. “The house is OK. The animals are fine, but the trees just took a beating,” Hewson said.

For about 45 minutes, Benzinger cleaned up trees on the road so that cars would have a clear path. Their property, however, will take several days, possibly weeks, to clean up, he said.

But they already have friends offering to help, Hewson added.

Staff reporters Joseph Popiolkowski, Barbara O’Brien and Stacy Fernandez contributed to this report.

by Maki Becker , Dale Anderson , and Justin Trombly
Published July 20, 2017 | Updated July 21, 2017

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Kyrie Wagner