Confirmed tornado scatters debris in Lewis County

Storm damage. Norm Johnston / NNY Business

Storm damage. Norm Johnston / NNY Business

Maple Ridge Wind Farm workers who rent two houses at Eagle Factory and Gardner roads fortunately were on holiday break Tuesday night, when a tornado swept through the area and ripped apart the structures as if they were toys.

The National Weather Service in Buffalo confirmed Wednesday that at 6:48 p.m. Tuesday, a tornado touched down near the intersection, west of Lowville, and went on to damage 12 buildings. The agency reported the northeast path of the tornado was about 10 miles long with a width of up to 300 yards, although it wasn’t on the ground the whole time. The last signs of damage were in the town of Croghan. The tornado was classified as an EF1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, reaching maximum wind speeds between 95 and 100 mph.

On Wednesday morning the two destroyed houses, which are owned by William J. Burke, were surrounded by uprooted trees and downed telephone poles. The massive wind turbines flanking the property were unaffected by the tornado.

If the workers hadn’t been on vacation, they probably would have been injured when the tornado hit the property, said Mr. Burke, a retired dairy farmer. The tornado moved northeast, damaging homes and farm buildings across a wide swath of Lewis County. Properties on Route 177, West Road, Rice Road, Route 12, Number 3 Road and Route 26 also were struck by the storm. Residents said Wednesday that it was fortunate no one was injured, because there were several close calls.

“If you go in there, it’s like a bomb went off inside — I’m not exaggerating,” Mr. Burke said, pointing to the substantially damaged house at 4093 Gardner Road, where four wind farm workers stayed for about two months before taking a holiday break. “We were fortunate that no one was here.”

Part of the structure’s roof was gone and the walls were pried open. Shattered glass was scattered across the upstairs living room, and a large shard of glass was protruding from the cushion of a couch. The neighboring house at 6093 Eagle Factory Road, which had three tenants, was destroyed. The roof was blown off and rested about 25 yards away.

Emergency management officials are assessing the tornado damage to determine whether homeowners could be eligible for disaster relief funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Lewis County Fire Coordinator James M. Martin said. Lewis County has made an emergency declaration, which is the first step toward seeking aid, he said. At least $98,000 in total damage is needed for the state Emergency Management Office to apply for FEMA aid on behalf of the county, he said.

“We won’t know if we’re eligible until we actually sit down and put the figures together,” he said. “We had farms that lost a lot, but they could be funded under a different program. And we don’t have a lot of infrastructure damage with roads, highways and bridges.”

Farms that underwent major damage could be eligible for relief funding from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, Mr. Martin said.

A barn was destroyed on a dairy farm owned by Daniel and Tonya O’Brien at 8013 Route 26, north of Lowville. The upper hayloft of the barn collapsed, killing 17 of the 53 cows inside.

Mrs. O’Brien said Wednesday that her husband and their son, Jacob, had just moved the cattle into the barn, which was attached to a milkhouse, when the tornado struck. She said that lightning appeared to strike the barn, and the two men retreated into the milkhouse for shelter. The storm detached the barn from the milkhouse and moved it about 12 feet away — still standing. The Lowville Fire Department demolished the building about 1 a.m. Wednesday, she said. She estimated that about 400 volunteers joined the four fire departments that responded Tuesday night.

“You just want your normal life back, but you know that normal isn’t going to be possible,” said Mrs. O’Brien, who said Wednesday the family had not slept at all since the incident.

On Tuesday night, Jacob described how he was sitting in the milkhouse with his father when the storm hit.

“We felt the wind change and my dad saw it coming,” he said. “You couldn’t see anything outside — there was just rain and thunder. We were in the milkhouse when the power went out.”

Inside the barn after the incident, he said, “all you could see is the hay-mow floor down on the stalls” for cattle.

Trees fell on both houses owned by the O’Briens on the property, and the top of a silo was blown off, Mrs. O’Brien said. The surviving cattle, meanwhile, are staying temporarily at a neighboring farm.

John W. Zubrzycki’s house at 7337 West Road miraculously was unscathed by the tornado, despite the fact that about eight maple trees fell in the front yard. A crew of Lewis County workers was busy Wednesday morning cutting logs with chain saws and clearing debris. A large section of a barn’s steel roof on the property was blown away, and a maintenance shed was flipped over. Oddly enough, nothing happened to a swing set or picnic tables in the house’s backyard.

Mr. Zubrzycki said that he was driving to the house from the family’s dairy farm off Route 12 near Bickford Road with his son Alex W. when the tornado was sweeping through after 7 p.m. The family immediately went to their shelter when his son Zachary J. reported that he saw trees falling down in the front yard.

“They were all scared,” he said, adding that the storm passed through within a matter of minutes. “We waited for about five minutes and came back up. We feel very fortunate there was no damage to the house at all.”

Others were less fortunate. A barn with a hayloft outside Beth B. Steria’s house at 7577 Route 12, north of Lowville, was obliterated by the tornado. The bough of a fallen tree covered the top of her Toyota Tacoma in the driveway Wednesday afternoon. The front yard was strewn with fallen trees, and National Grid workers were repairing power lines. When the storm passed through Tuesday night, Mrs. Steria said, she was away at her newly bought home on Brookside Circle in Lowville.

“I won’t know if the truck’s OK until I get the tree off,” she said. “But the house could have been worse. There are tree branches on it but no broken windows.”

The impact in Jefferson County was minor by comparison.

“Ours was limited,” Jefferson County Highway Superintendent James L. Lawrence Jr. said. “We mostly had trees blocking roadways and some poles snapped down for power lines or other cables.”

Jefferson County Director of Emergency Management Joseph D. Plummer said that much of the damage to the area’s electrical infrastructure happened to the south, in Oneida, Oswego, Madison and Onondaga counties.

“We were really in very good shape — no injuries, no major problems,” Mr. Plummer said.

The storm did delay the parade for the Jefferson County Fair by about an hour, according to Mr. Plummer.

“We did lose some participants, including firemen who had to answer calls,” he said.

The parade, which was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., began at 8 p.m.

Jefferson County, along with the entirety of the north country, is still recovering from a long and difficult winter that saw an ice storm and several snowstorms.

According to Mr. Lawrence, summer storms in the region are becoming more “aggressive.”

“It seems like they’re more intense,” Mr. Lawrence said. “There are thunderstorms throughout the summer instead of those where we just get rainfall. In the last 10 years it’s become more noticeable.”

As of 10 p.m. Wednesday, fewer than five National Grid customers were without power in Jefferson County, down from nearly 3,000 at 10 p.m. Tuesday. In Lewis County, about 1,600 customers were without power Wednesday night, down from about 3,800 Tuesday night, National Grid reported.

Johnson Newspapers writers Daniel Flatley and Amanda Thomson-Tangalin contributed to this report.

Video of the damage can be seen at

Tornadoes in NNY

While tornadoes are rare across Northern New York, several have touched down in the past century.

■ July 19, 1936: Tornado that struck Philadelphia killed Mrs. Earl Duke and damaged houses and barns.

■ July 2, 1959: A twister that hit Adams ruined the home of Winfield White and destroyed a barn on the Medios Tessier farm.

■ May 2, 1983: A tornado ripped through Boonville, “lifting the village police station and an automobile body shop off their foundations,” according to a story in the Times. More than 100 homes and businesses sustained major damage.

■ Aug. 29, 1983: A twister that started over Lake Ontario roared ashore at Southwick Beach State Park and went through Ellisburg, damaging buildings and killing five horses.

■ Aug. 18, 1986: A tornado that followed the Oswegatchie River in the towns of Rossie and Gouverneur killed Dale Denesha, who was electrocuted by a downed high-voltage line, demolished four barns and seriously damaged four houses.

■ June 5, 1987: A funnel cloud touched down in Lowville, lifting a car 6 feet off the ground and uprooting trees.

■ June 10, 2004: Two tornadoes hit St. Lawrence County on the same day. One touched down at Chippewa Bay on Oak Island in the St. Lawrence River, the other 3 miles southeast of the village of Gouverneur. The twisters lifted roofs off houses and tore down trees, but did little other damage.

By Ted Booker, Times Staff Writer