Storm Prompts Tense Moments, And A Whirlwind Cleanup Effort

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Storms

A tree toppled on a vehicle on Stony Hill Road during last Tuesday’s storm. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM Last week’s historic storm caused serious but short-lived disruptions to life on the Lower Cape. A week later, following a massive effort by local and state officials, utility workers, contractors and private citizens, the cleanup was largely complete.

The National Weather Service Monday revised its findings to conclude that three tornadoes struck the Mid- and Lower Cape last Tuesday: one in Harwich (see official path, below), one in South Yarmouth, and a third which touched down very briefly in West Yarmouth. Locally, the Harwich twister touched down on the south side of Parallel Street in Harwich Center near the Harwich Elementary School, traveling east northeast in a straight line, paralleling Route 39. The tornado dissipated just east of the roundabout at Queen Anne Road and Route 39, leaving a swath of destruction as wide as 250 yards in places.

Based on information from the National Weather Service, this map shows the tornado touchdown in Harwich Center (lower left) and its 2.77-mile path roughly along Route 39, ending near Queen Anne Road. It was one of three twisters that struck the Cape last Tuesday. NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE GRAPHIC

Based on information from the National Weather Service, this map shows the tornado touchdown in Harwich Center (lower left) and its 2.77-mile path roughly along Route 39, ending near Queen Anne Road. It was one of three twisters that struck the Cape last Tuesday. NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE GRAPHIC

In Chatham, straight-line winds spawned by the same super cell thunderstorm caused winds up to 90 mph, uprooting countless trees. According to the nonprofit group Friends of Trees, the storm destroyed many, many historic trees, including many that were featured in the group’s self-guided tree tour of Chase Park. Group organizers are encouraging people to plant new trees right away to help restore the canopy and the habitat it provides.

Though structural damage was limited, there was a human toll from the storm and stories of heroism. When the storm was approaching, a school bus was returning eight children home from a summer camp program when the teacher, Nicole Hedmark, heeded the tornado warning she received on her phone. She had the bus pull in at the next building, the Agway store in Chatham, and escorted the children indoors. The staff led the children to an interior room, and gave the children popsicles and flashlights while they weathered the storm for the next 45 minutes. While the students seemed unfazed by the high winds – some didn’t appear to even notice the emergency – the experience has left some people understandably rattled (see related story, page 49).

While the storm was approaching, a crew from the Chatham harbormaster’s office was responding to a disabled boat in the Stage Harbor entrance channel. When they arrived, the boater had managed to restart his engine and was motoring into the harbor; the town crew escorted him to his mooring. Harbormaster Stuart Smith, watching weather reports, encouraged the crew to make haste to the dock after their mission. The crew tied up at the dock and ran to the workshop building, just as the storm hit. They watched the wind gauge in disbelief.

“The winds went from 10 to 15 to about 70 in a few minutes,” Smith said. No one was hurt, but a cell phone video shot by a boater aboard his vessel in Stage Harbor showed large breaking waves that caused boats to violently pitch and roll at their moorings. “It looked like Hurricane Bob,” Smith said.

At the peak of the storm, power was out for 95 percent of customers in Chatham. Power restoration began almost immediately, eventually drawing in crews from around the region. While all electrical service was restored within a couple days, a certain number of customers were angry and complained loudly when they encountered utility crews sitting in their vehicles at the roadside. Town officials note that the power crews all worked long hours and were required by federal law to take breaks to ensure that they could continue working safely. Still, when some members of the public discovered the Eversource command post behind the fire station, they banged on the door to complain, prompting police to cordon off the trailer.

While some were frustrated, most people seemed to take the storm in stride, Deputy Chatham Police Chief Michael Anderson said.

“There was so much generosity and goodwill that we experienced,” he said. Even the day after the storm, downtown Chatham was swarming with summer visitors, Oyster Pond Beach was crowded with swimmers and sunbathers, and people were playing tennis on the public courts next to the town’s emergency operations center.

One of the few places in town that had electrical service during the storm was Liberty Commons, which operated on generator power throughout the event. On Friday, Broad Reach Healthcare opened its regular Friday barbecue to first responders and utility crews, offering them a free hot meal as a gesture of thanks.

A mishap that could have caused a significant environmental problem has apparently been averted.  High winds toppled a transformer from a utility pole on Homestead Lane, causing the fluid in the sealed container to leak out. While modern transformers contain mineral oil, older ones contain polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCBs.

“It was 17 gallons that leaked, and the material that leaked has been banned since 1978. So it’s significantly toxic,” Harbormaster Stuart Smith said. The fluid flowed about 150 feet downhill, where much of it ended up in storm drains—at a level below the pipe that empties the drains into Little Mill Pond.

An emergency order bans shellfishing and swimming in Mill Pond, Little Mill Pond and the Mitchell River north of the drawbridge. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

An emergency order bans shellfishing and swimming in Mill Pond, Little Mill Pond and the Mitchell River north of the drawbridge. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

“Environmental testing on Tuesday showed no detectable amounts of PCBs in the waterway, allowing officials to lift eh ban on swimming and shellfishing that had been in place for Little Mill Pond, Mill Pond and the Mitchell River north of the drawbridge.  A cleanup contractor has cleaned the basins and taken away contaminated soil and may have to dig up pavement on the road to complete the cleanup. Part of the problem was that there was a delay in responding to the spill.

“I know it was hours. It was a significant amount of time,” Smith said, because the road was blocked by many trees.

There was another reason for town officials to close the Mitchell River and Mill Ponds to shellfishing; the high winds during the storm caused a portable toilet at 90 Bridge St. to roll over and into the harbor, Smith said.

Public Works Director Tom Temple said despite initial traffic jams at the disposal area, the collection of storm debris has worked smoothly, and residents will be able to bring limbs and branches for disposal for free through Aug. 4. The state has also issued an emergency declaration through Aug. 24 which allows certain storm clean-up activities in designated wetlands areas; for information, contact the town’s conservation department. Cleanup of the significant tree debris went well, thanks to a joint effort of various town departments, several state agencies and private contractors, Temple noted. “It really sped things up on our end,” he said. If not for the outside help, “we would’ve been doing this for another couple of weeks.”

A mountain of tree debris at the Chatham disposal area. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

A mountain of tree debris at the Chatham disposal area. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Eversource deserves credit for the rapid repair to the power grid, Temple noted. “Keep in mind, they were doing 12-hour shifts,” he said. “They did a great job, and they had a ton of people to get us back up.”

The town is still in the process of tabulating the damage from the storm, but for his department, extra expenses because of the storm easily top a couple of hundred thousand dollars, Temple said. “I can’t even give you a dollar figure on that,” he said.

According to an initial damage assessment carried out by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, between 30 and 40 homes in Chatham were damaged by fallen trees. Though homeowners’ insurance policies may soften the blow, high deductibles are likely to discourage some from making claims for their yard clean-up efforts. The Cape Cod Cooperative Bank is offering special storm recovery loans of up to $5,000 to people impacted by the storm, with a fast application process and terms of between one and 36 months. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue is waiving penalties for late tax payments or returns for residents of Chatham, Harwich and several other towns (but not Orleans); for details, call 617-887-6367.

Businesses with verifiable losses related to the storm can also apply for an emergency loan through the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, funded by the state and coordinated by the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. For details, visit www.EmpoweringSmallBusiness.org, then click “Emergency Loan Funds” under “What We Offer.”

Tornadoes are rare but not unprecedented on Cape Cod, but the storms last week doubled the number of documented twisters ever to hit Barnstable County. The only other documented tornadoes to hit Cape Cod were a very weak one in Woods Hole last October, an F1 tornado at the Barnstable Municipal Airport in August 1977, and another F1 tornado in the vicinity of Sandwich in August 1968. Tornadoes are rated on the enhanced Fujita scale of zero through five, with five being the strongest. Last week’s three tornadoes were all rated EF-1.

But there is reason to suggest that tornadoes could have hit Cape Cod before detailed weather records were kept. Historic photos show large waterspouts in the waters around the Cape, and an account believed to come from the Chatham Monitor from August 1924 describes the worst summer storm in many years.

“We had all been wanting rain for the sake of gardens and lawns so the only regret when Tuesday dawned rainy was that it was Barnstable Fair day,” the account reads. “But before the day was over the wind had blown from near all points of the compass increasing in violence as the day closed. Along six o’clock trees were lying in all sorts of positions. From the Hawes House 15 uprooted trees were counted. A short drive around the center brought a toll of 40 gone, not to mention the quantities of limbs of various sizes town away.” The storm crushed the kitchen of one cottage, blew off the cupola of George Crowell’s barn, and caused electrical and telephone outages.

“Summer visitors often say they wonder how the ocean looks in a winter storm. If they were brave enough to breast the rain and wind or fortunate enough to live near the ocean they found out Tuesday for the surf was a magnificent sight, spray flying high into the air as each wave broke on the beach,” the account reads.

Last week's storm took a toll on the resident osprey population, with several well-known nests disturbed. The nesting platform at Hardings Beach was blown down during the storm, and three chicks found on the ground were taken to Wild Care for treatment. Volunteers Michael Brown and Carl Jacobs rebuilt the nest platform and the parents returned to the nest four hours later, at which point the chicks were placed back in the nest. A similar drama played out in Harwich Port, where chicks fell from a nest in one of the overhead lights at Bud’s Go-karts. With help from Wild Care volunteers, the Harwich Fire Department used its ladder truck to return the chicks to the nest. The ladder truck then took a celebratory victory lap around the go-kart track.


 

 Chronicle Weathers The Storm

CHATHAM It took some special effort and an extra day, but last week’s print edition of The Cape Cod Chronicle became a reality thanks to help from the Chatham Fire Department.

Cape Cod Chronicle staff members work to assemble last week’s paper in a makeshift office at the Chatham Fire Department. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Cape Cod Chronicle staff members work to assemble last week’s paper in a makeshift office at the Chatham Fire Department. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Last week’s newspaper was about halfway completed when the storm struck, leaving The Chronicle’s office without power or internet connection. The Chatham Fire Department allowed a core group of Chronicle staffers to work in an empty conference room on Wednesday, with a computer network scratch-built on site by Chris Szwaja of CS Tech, the newspaper’s IT firm. By around 9 p.m., the last pages were uploaded to TCI Press, the Seekonk-based printer that produces the newspaper. It was on newsstands Thursday afternoon.

But throughout the storm, The Chronicle updated its web page with photos and storm information for Harwich and Chatham. The storm story broke a record, earning more than 24,000 page views in the days following the disaster, surpassing a 2016 story about a shark sighting in Pleasant Bay that had held the record at about 19,500 views.