Five Minutes, 110 MPH Winds, 3,000 Trees Gone: A Year Ago, Rare Tornado Struck

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Storms

A downed tree in Harwich Port, one of thousands felled by the tornado and associated winds.  FILE PHOTO

Today is the one-year anniversary of the tornado that tore through a 2.8-mile stretch of town from just west of Harwich Center, following Route 39 into East Harwich and into Chatham. With winds churning at 110 miles per hour, trees posed no resistance, littering and blocking roadways, making vehicle passage nearly impossible.

“It was probably the worst natural disaster the town has seen and I worked through Hurricane Bob. We were fortunate to get through it,” Department of Public Works Director Lincoln Hooper said this week.

Amazingly, during the five-minute period when thousands of trees were scattered like grass clippings from a lawnmower, there were no injuries and little impact to structure. It was the landscape that did not escape the havoc of Mother Nature. Town officials said 3,000 trees were lost on public property alone. The town experienced extensive damage in a number of locations, including Cranberry Valley Golf Course, Brooks Park and in cemeteries and conservation lands.

Two powerful high-end EF-1 tornadoes touched down on the Cape that day, according to the National Weather Service. The first struck southeast Barnstable and Yarmouth in a 5.5-mile, 250-yard-wide path, ripping the roof off a motel and causing other damage. The Harwich tornado, also 250 yards wide, caused wind damage in Dennis and in Chatham, where winds reached 90 MPH and there was extensive tree damage and power outages.

Fire Chief Norman Clarke, Jr. was at home around noon having lunch and listening to the weather when he learned a tornado was on the ground. Then trees started shaking and snapping around his house. He left his house on Long Road and headed toward headquarters, but the road was clogged with trees. He called the nearby water department and they had a front-end loader there quickly, clearing the trees for him to pass.

Once at the emergency operations center, town staff came together quickly and put together a plan. The situation was handled with professionalism, Clarke said, praising the participating departments.

“I thought there would be a lot of injured people out there,” Clarke said. “It was frustrating. There were areas of town we couldn’t get to. That was very troubling. We had to reach deep to manage our resources, we couldn’t get help. The roads weren’t passable. But we came together as a team and met the challenge.”

Hooper said he and a couple of his employees were in Orleans at an OSHA certification class when he received the tornado alert on his phone. “We laughed,” Hooper said. That first alert came when the tornado briefly touched down in Yarmouth. Hooper and his crew changed their tune quickly when they reached the Queen Anne Road roundabout and headed toward Route 124.

“It was actually the first time in my life I actually feared for my life,” Hooper said. “The trees and poles were coming down in all directions. It’s not like a hurricane when it comes at you in one direction. I will never ignore a warning like that again.” It took Hooper two hours to get to the emergency operations center.

After selectmen declared a state of emergency, Gov. Charlie Baker had 300 to 400 people in town from various state agencies and from public works departments from communities along the South Shore. Procurement waivers were put in place to hire tree service companies immediately. DPW staff worked 12-hour shifts for two weeks, Hooper said. The roadways in town were open within 36 hours.

Without the assistance from Gov. Baker and the people he brought to Harwich, Hooper said, the town would not have been back in operation for two months. As it was, it took two weeks to get everything back in order. Hooper had great praise for Mayer Tree Service and Northern Tree Service and the heavy equipment chippers they brought in.

“What they did in two-and-a-half days it would have taken the DPW two-and-a-half weeks to do,” Hooper said. “The labor savings with that stuff was enormous.”

The DPW staff was tired at the onset because they worked through the night before the tornado hit. There had been a micro-burst along Route 124 near the center of town that night, taking down a number of large trees and blocking the roadway. Hooper had great praise for the work his staff did over that period.

Although not as hard hit, there was extensive tree destruction in Chatham and about two dozen homes and properties had minor damage. Some were old, iconic trees, including a large silver maple in front of the Chatham Methodist Church which overhung Main Street. The tornado knocked out power, but NStar brought in a fleet of crews that were able to restore power to most areas within a day, and the entire town was back on by the end of the week.

State and federal officials came to examine the damage and talk about financial assistance. Senator Ed Markey and Congressman Bill Keating joined with state Speaker of the House of Representatives Robert DeLeo and Cape legislators to assess damages. Gov. Baker and his staff did an onsite assessment as well.

At one point, 35,000 cubic yards of tree-based debris was stockpiled at the town’s former landfill site. Robert B. Our Company was hired to shred the material and place it in windrows to allow it to decompose. Much of the material remains there a year later.

The total damage sustained in Barnstable County, however, did not meet the FEMA threshold of $9.6 million required for federal assistance.

Last October the state legislature included $3.2 million in a supplemental budget package to assist towns impacted by the tornadoes. Harwich Finance Director Carol Coppola said the town had to make a formal request for those funds this spring, and $1,171,060 was released to the town on May 29.

In all, Coppola said the town spent $844,875 on the cleanup. If not for the state reimbursement, the town would have had to cut its budget to absorb the costs, she said. The town was hoping for funds to cover the cost of planning new trees, but those funds were not made available, she added.

Chatham received $400,000 in state reimbursement for costs associated with the tornado.

People were inconvenienced for a short time, Hooper said, and the impact could have been much worse. A year later, he said, you’d have to know where to look to see traces of the impact from the tornado, and efforts are being made to upgrade some of the hardest-hit areas, including the Brooks Park hollow, which was stripped of most of its trees. Monomoy High School student Lily Daniels-Diehl has already organized planting of flowers in the hollow and is working with the town on a larger landscape plan to restore life to the hollow.