Tornado Strikes Harwich, Knocks Out Power And Uproots Hundreds Of Trees

By: Cape Cod Chronicle Staff

Topics: Storms

Countless trees lost limbs or were uprooted completely.

HARWICH – 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. 

A tree down across Route 124 near Harwich Center. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

A tree down across Route 124 near Harwich Center. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

After striking Harwich, severe winds of up to 90 miles per hour continued into Chatham, leaving a miles-long swath of damage in its wake. A tornado also touched down in Yarmouth, the National Weather Service confirmed.

By Wednesday, Eversource had restored power to about half the town, with the entire town projected to have electricity back by 6 p.m. Friday.

Selectmen declared a state of emergency Tuesday afternoon. Gov. Charlie Baker was in Harwich on Wednesday to view the damage. He met for nearly an hour in a closed-door session with area emergency management officials in the public safety facilities on Sisson Road. The governor also took a tour of sections of the town severely hit by the tornado.

No major injuries were reported.

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 dump will be waived through Aug. 6 to allow residents to clean up their properties.

Baker 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.

A Harwich High Department crew member cuts trees on Route 124 near Harwich Center. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

A Harwich High Department crew member cuts trees on Route 124 near Harwich Center. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

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 the National Guard is mobilized and waiting to hear from the local communities.

Benincasa Thorpe also 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.

Town Administrator Christopher Clark told the governor the town has the fire and police resources needed, but there is so much debris it will not be a 24- to 36-hour clean up and additional resources will be needed to back-fill the town's efforts.

Questions were raised about the impact of the tornado on tourism. State Senator Julien 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.

The community center kitchen made meals for first responders and tree crews. Large trays of food were brought into the police and fire station. The center was open for people to shower and charge phones, and Brooks Free Library also opened early so people could access power and the internet.

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.

DPW crews used front end loaders to clear debris from roadways.

“The DPW is doing an incredible job getting trees cleared,” said Goshgarian. He warned people to stay away from any downed wires. “There's people walking right around downed wires,” he said. Seven state police units were temporarily assigned to Harwich to help with law enforcement. State forest fire crews were also sent to town to assist in tree-clearing operations.

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.

“One good thing that’s working in our favor is the weather,” said Goshgarian. If the temperatures were as high as they were over the weekend, he said, tempers would be shorter and more people would be looking for refuge.

A tree fell across this vehicle at the Brooks Academy Museum parking lot. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

A tree fell across this vehicle at the Brooks Academy Museum parking lot. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

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.

Downed trees and branches cover the front of Brooks Academy in Harwich Center. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

Downed trees and branches cover the front of Brooks Academy in Harwich Center. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

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.

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.

A woman tries to get a cell signal in front of the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Harwich Center. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

A woman tries to get a cell signal in front of the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Harwich Center. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

Gov. Charlie Baker speaks to reporters in Harwich Tuesday afternoon. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

Gov. Charlie Baker speaks to reporters in Harwich Tuesday afternoon. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

Trimming branches on a tree outside a South Harwich home.  WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

Trimming branches on a tree outside a South Harwich home.  WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO