CHATHAM – A tornado with wind gusts to 110 miles per hour touched down in Harwich Center Tuesday, uprooting trees and knocking out power to most of the town. The storm continued into Chatham, with winds gusting up to 90 miles per hour leaving a miles-long swath of damage in its wake.
A tornado also touched down in Yarmouth, the National Weather Service confirmed.
On Tuesday nearly the entire town was without power, but by late Wednesday, electricity had been restored to nearly 70 percent of customers. Eversource projected that all power would be restored by 4 p.m. Friday.
Many roads were impassable after the remnants of the tornado blew through town shortly before 12:30 p.m. Tuesday. There was little damage to town property and only minor damage to 15 to 20 private homes, and officials said they were amazed that there were no major injuries reported. Some airplanes at Chatham Airport were damaged and two dozen boats sank or broke free of moorings.
On Wednesday the focus was on clearing debris and restoring power. Eversource had hundreds of crews in the area from as far away as Connecticut and New Hampshire including line workers, tree crews, damage assessors and other personnel. Crews will remain “until the lights are back on,” said Eversource spokesman Reid Lamberty. Some streets remained partially closed. Brush disposal fees at the transfer station were being waived to allow residents to clean up their properties.
Gov. Charlie Baker meet with public safety officials in Harwich Tuesday afternoon. He said public safety was a primary concern. He said there was a need for more public and private resources for removing debris and that the focus would be on restoring electricity.
With trees blocking roads and strewn across roofs and yards, Baker said it is hard to calculate the amount of debris and the cost of the damage. He said it will be several days before a full damage assessment is available. State Undersecretary of Homeland Security Jeanne Benincasa Thorpe said a drone is being used to take video of the disaster to determine where critical damage was done. It will show the path of the tornado and help direct resources to the areas most in need.
Questions were raised about the impact of the tornado on tourism. State Senator Julian Cyr, D-Truro, said that was a concern given that it is the heart of the tourist season. He emphasized the importance of getting businesses back open and emphasized the need to get the electricity restored. People need to know the Cape is open for business, he said, adding that he will will be working with the state legislature to assure that happens.
Baker said he would also seek any federal reimbursements and will pursue other resources.
In addition to Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation forest fire crews, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) sent a tree crew from the department of corrections, said Harwich Police Sgt. Aram Goshgarian.
“There are so many resources here now, I feel like things are going to start moving faster,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
A shelter was opened at Dennis-Yarmouth High School, but officials in both Chatham and Harwich said they had no requests from people wanting to go there.
According to a statement from the National Weather Service, a “supercell” thunderstorm produced waterspouts on both Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound Tuesday morning. One moved onshore as a tornado just west of Kalmus Beach in Hyannis and had a discontinuous path and finally lifted in South Yarmouth. It lasted from 11:57 a.m. to 12:07 p.m., with a path 250 yards wide and 5.52 miles long. Wind gusts of up to 110 miles per hour lifted a roof from a West Yarmouth motel and caused significant damage to trees, roofs, utility poles and wires. Damage was also reported in Dennis and parts of Barnstable.
The same tornado touched down again in Harwich Center just east of the Harwich Elementary School, just south of Parallel Street at 12:10 p.m. It moved northeast through Harwich Center, passing just south of Cranberry Valley Golf Course and lifting in East Harwich near Queen Anne Road.
The Harwich tornado also had gusts of 110 miles per hour and lifted off at 12:15 p.m. It cut a swath 250 yards wide and 2.77 miles long, lifting shingles from roofs and uprooted or snapped at least 150 hardwood trees, the weather service said.
Jane Johnson, who lives in Harwich Center, said the storm came "fast and furious. It was scary."
After the tornado lifted, severe “straight-line wind damage” was occurred in Chatham, with damage consistent with 90-mile-per-hour winds.
Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith said winds at the fish pier gusted to 86 miles per hour; his office on Stage Harbor clocked gusts of 75 miles per hour.
About 25 boats were broke free of their moorings, flipped or sank, most in Stage Harbor and Oyster Pond, Smith said.
Chatham Emergency Management Director John Kondratowicz said the disaster underscores the value of the relationships the town has fostered with other agencies on the state and local level. “We have formed incredible partnerships with the state, with Eversource, with everybody,” he said. In many respects, the emergency has been an invaluable learning opportunity, he said. The fire station functioned perfectly as the town’s emergency operations center, and also served as a base of operations for Eversource crews.
When the tornado was approaching, Kondratowicz received an email alert from the Barnstable County Multi-Agency Coordination Center, and was able to warn town employees some 15 minutes before the storm arrived.
When the wind stopped blowing, even before the town could conduct any sort of damage assessment, Kondratowicz had received offers of assistance from the state and from Eversource.
“I never had to make a phone call,” he said.
The town's partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was also successful, with Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge Manager Matt Hillman opening a impromptu charging station for Morris Island residents who were without power. For other town residents, the council on aging was opened as a charging station at 8 a.m. Wednesday, and a number of residents visited, Kondratowicz said. An outdoor shower at the harbormaster's office at 613 Stage Harbor Rd. was available for public use.
Kondratowicz said it was very fortunate that temperatures were moderate in the wake of the storm, so people didn’t suffer because they were without air conditioning. In all, the human toll from the storm was far less than it might have been.
“No fatalities, no injuries,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”
Fisherman Ben Morgan ran right into the remnants of the tornado as he was heading back to the fish pier. He'd just made it through the North Inlet when he lost sight of the boats in front of him.
“Then it got really windy, to say the least,” he said. He jogged the 45-foot Lobster Mobster into the wind and suddenly the 15-foot front hatch began to go straight up and down as if it was being sucked into the air. He and the crew donned survival suits when suddenly the wind whipped into the cabin from the back and “just drenched all the electronics.” Without GPS, he plowed ahead, pushing over shoals and into the channel. When he reached safety, he fond that two 80- to 90-pound fish storage covers were gone, and a box loaded with 900 pounds of fish had shifted by 10 inches.
Morgan said he's been on the water for 20 or 25 years and has never had a similar experience. “Not even close,” he said.
At Chatham Municipal Airport, a Cessna 172 single-engine airplane broke its tie-down and flipped over, according to Airport Manager Tim Howard. The severe wind blew the antenna off the main terminal building, and spun other planes around.
"It's bad," Howard said Tuesday. "It was a powerful blast." With the power out, he couldn't determine the storm's wind speed at the airport.
The Vaughn family visiting from Texas was driving in Chatham when they recognized the changing weather conditions and sought refuge in The Chronicle's offices at Munson Meeting Way. Chad Vaughn said the family had ridden out two tornadoes at home, one of which leveled his neighbor's house. He said he was surprised to run into a tornado on Cape Cod.
On Wednesday people were on the streets in downtown Chatham, watching crews remove trees and debris. Many businesses were open even though power was out. The Ben Franklin store was open and advertising on its Facebook page that it had flashlights and candles available. “If they need to get to the back of the store, we give them flashlights,” said owner Barbara Henderson.