“Tornado warning in this area … take shelter now” read the emergency alert on my phone accompanied by a screeching sound designed to get my attention.
It was Tuesday, May 15, and an intense system of storms was about to hit my neighborhood in New Fairfield. I was at my parents’ house, just down the road from my place, meeting my dad for a late coffee. Before this alert had popped up, the sky had grown suddenly dark, like the sun had decided to set early.
My parents’ house is on top of a hill, and as I looked out the window, off in the distance, I could see what looked like a line of dark mist moving from right to left across the horizon, slowly blanketing the valley below in an ominous haze. It was the most surreal natural phenomenon I’ve ever witnessed. It looked like something from a B-movie, when someone summons some evil spirit or forbidden power, and to my untrained eye, it seemed like a tornado was forming. (I’d later learn from Patrick Maloit, a lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service office on Long Island, which forecasts for the southern half of Connecticut, that what I saw was likely an “outflow from the approaching thunderstorm. That very often will kick up debris and dust and could carry moisture with it, and would look like a wall of lower clouds, or gray that’s moving towards you.”)
Terrified by this strange weather, I called my wife, who was driving home from work, and told her to meet me at my parents house, as it was a minute or so closer. Luckily, she was nearby and arrived about two minutes later. As she walked in, the power went out and it began to rain. As the rain picked up intensity, instead of falling from the sky to the ground it moved horizontally across the lawn, crashing into the windows as though fired by a high-powered hose. My dad started to close a window but the strength of the wind made it difficult. As he wrestled the window shut, we decided to head for the basement.
Ryan Gallagher, a meteorologist with the Connecticut Weather Center in Danbury, and other forecasters began tracking the weather pattern two days early. Storms had formed in Pennsylvania and by Sunday night, forecasters expected severe thunderstorms to hit parts of Connecticut on Tuesday, but the extent of that severity wasn’t yet known.
“Typically when we’re that far out, we don’t make much more of a detailed judgment than that just because thunderstorms by their nature are pretty unpredictable,” Gallagher says.
He adds, by Tuesday morning, “once we were looking at the actual data, it was pretty clear that the atmosphere had a bit of unusual instability around compared to what we typically see.”
This storm system moved from Pennsylvania into New York, and near the border another severe storm system formed. By the time these storms hit the Hudson Valley they had gained intensity and began wreaking havoc.
My town, on the border of New York, was one of the first in Connecticut to be hit.
The storm formed two tornadoes in New York state, and four in Connecticut. One formed between Southbury and Oxford; another touched down in Beacon Falls and traveled 10 miles into Hamden; and a third twister hit Winsted. A fourth tornado that formed over the Barkhamsted Reservoir never made landfall.
Mixed in with the tornadoes were microbursts and macrobursts, intense downdrafts of air that occur during powerful thunderstorms, and can be equally as devastating as tornadoes. A macroburst with 100- to 110-mph winds tore across Candlewood Lake and parts of New Fairfield, Danbury and Brookfield. In New Fairfield, a woman was killed when a tree fell on her car, while a man in Danbury was killed in his yard. A couple who was kayaking on Candlewood Lake capsized during the storm and was rescued by neighbors. Among the areas devastated in Bethany was the 253-year-old Clover Nook Farm, where greenhouses were blown into the air. Lars Demander, who owns the farm with his family, was actually lifted into the air briefly.
“It’s a common misconception that it takes a tornado to do that kind of damage. Macrobursts can be as damaging, if not more damaging, than tornadoes,” Gallagher says. “They can be very intense winds that basically drop down from the thunderstorm, reach the surface and fan out along whatever size corridor they’re affecting.”
There have been deadly tornadoes in the state in the past. A child was killed by a tornado in Hamden in 1989, and three people died when a tornado hit Windsor Locks in 1979. In the last decade, Connecticut has also endured a spate of intense weather events, including Irene and the Halloween nor’easter in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. But the May storms caused the greatest damage in the memory of most people in the region, with 400 blocked roads and more downed trees than I or those I spoke with for this story recall seeing in the last 30 years.
“We’ve heard from many of our line workers, many with at least 30 years of experience, [and] to a person they said they had never seen damage like this,” says Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Eversource, the state’s largest power utility. “We had more than 300 miles of downed wire that all had to be repaired or replaced. That’s about three times more than we had in Sandy. If you stretch that wire end to end, that’s the distance from Hartford to Washington, D.C.”
For comparison, Sandy only resulted in 105 miles of line down and 85-mph winds, though there were far more outages caused by Sandy than the May storms because it covered a wider area of the state.
Maloit from the National Weather Service says, “Most severe thunderstorms across this region are usually on the weak end of the scale, which is going to produce winds of 60 mph, but a few times a summer we’ll get storms in the 65- to 75-mph range. Those are fairly usual. Usually one or two storms in a summer will get you something in the 80- to 90-[mph range], but we don’t see storms with wind guests routinely in the 100-110-mph range. Those wind speeds happen, my experience of it is, in the five- to 10-year ballpark on average.”
Hidden in the basement, we were sheltered from the worst of it, and after about 15-20 minutes it was all over. As we made our way outside, we saw that my parents’ yard furniture had been scattered and there was a small tree down near the driveway. Luckily nothing had hit either my parents’ or my house, but the true extent of the devastation was only beginning to become clear.
The storm caused Metro-North from New York City to temporarily suspend service. Photos showed hundreds of commuters packed into Grand Central Station during rush hour. My mom, who works in New York City, spent the night in Manhattan after she contacted New Fairfield police, who told her that even if she rented a car or got a ride, that the town was completely impassable. Other relatives were temporarily stuck on Interstate 84, or between falling trees in Brookfield. But my family was lucky: No one was hurt, and no property was destroyed.
The next day we learned that 98 percent of New Fairfield had lost power. That morning, both my wife and I naively tried to get to work. We didn’t get far. Our street, a two-mile dead end road that winds its way up a hill, was blocked in — not by one fallen tree but by dozens. Many balanced precariously on wires, only their branches touching the ground. At the top of the road near where we live, and near the first tree blocking the street, was a line of stranded vehicles belonging to workers and visitors who had the misfortune of being on the road when the storm struck. It was a strange image of frozen daily life that reminded me of the ash plasters of Pompeii, people unexpectedly trapped in the minutiae of a single moment.
Not only were we without power, but we were trapped. Rather than wait for clearly overtaxed town and power workers, by midday a group of civic-minded neighbors had had enough and a flash mob of chainsaw-wielding good samaritans descended on the trees, while dozens of others helped moved debris. Ultimately, a precarious but nevertheless passable-by-car path was cut and cleared off the road. I heard of similar scenes playing out throughout my and nearby towns.
Even still, routine trips off our road were adventures. Over the next few days, my wife and I, and everyone on the road, grew uncomfortably accustomed to driving over wires and under gnarled trees suspended over the road by downed power lines — a very ill-advised action that, in the days after the storm, seemed unavoidable. Even off our road, there were detours and constant road closures and delays. Getting home after dark didn’t seem safe. Driving a town over to pick up pizza was a reckless move; we did that one night, but didn’t have the courage for it the next evening.
Facebook, and in particular a local Facebook group for the area, became a prime source of information. This let us know things like when certain roads that had been opened the day before were closed for work, and when the cable returned before power, which helped those neighbors with generators. But true to Facebook form it also helped spread fake news. There was a picture of a tornado allegedly over Candlewood Lake (it was an old photo of a different lake), and reports of a lineman injured that Eversource had no information about.
Just traveling a few miles made a world of difference in terms of impact from the storm. When I traveled to Kent for another story in this issue, it felt like California in the Depression: untouched and beautiful. But getting home took three times longer than usual.
Meanwhile, what amounted to an army of lineworkers descended on the area.
“Between line crews, tree crews, and people in supporting roles, there were over 1,000 people working to restore our customers,” Gross says. “We had lineworkers from Eversource in Connecticut as well as Eversource in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. We had line workers and tree workers come from Canada, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Rhode Island, Vermont. There were license plates from everywhere on the trucks. … The utility industry has a phenomenal mutual aid system.”
Among these workers was Steve Blair, the Tolland-based manager for electric operations at Eversource. When the storm hit, Blair was in Manchester, New Hampshire, at the first day of a two-day meeting for Eversource employees. Late Tuesday afternoon, he and many others at the meeting got word to skip the next day. The Connecticut workers at the meeting and many New Hampshire workers headed to our state.
On Wednesday, Blair arrived in Bethany, where he says he witnessed the worst destruction of his 17-year career. “I hadn’t seen houses with the front of the house peeled away [or where] half of the garage is gone,” Blair says.
Electrical crews have a priority system in place for all storms. First they work with 911 emergency calls to help resolve dangerous situations caused by downed lines and live wires. Then they look to restore essential services such as water and sewage treatment plants and police and fire stations. Next they attempt to restore service to the greatest number of customers at a single time.
Blair says the damage he witnessed after the storm was “daunting,” but you manage it by completing one task at a time. “You don’t bite the entire pie at once.”
After starting in Bethany, Blair worked with crews in Beacon Falls, Naugatuck, Oxford and New Fairfield, where on Candlewood Isle, a densely populated lakeside community, he says he witnessed the greatest damage. “Bethany was bad, and Beacon Falls was bad, but the award goes to New Fairfield. It’s awe inspiring, if you think of what the wind can do.”
For those of us eagerly awaiting the intense cleanup efforts, there were some frustrations. I’d have liked more official information from area towns and the power company on what roads were closed when. It also would be helpful for a live map of where crews are working to be available, for traffic-control reasons and just for general information. I know the aftermath of an intense storm can be a fluid situation, but with modern technology, tracking recovery progress seems doable.
But like many others, I knew these were first-world problems. I felt bad for my neighbors who had been left with badly damaged, and in some cases, unlivable homes. I also was reminded of the many Americans in Puerto Rico still without power eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s power grid. And I was grateful every time I saw crews from the power company working in my area, and to a person, members of the crews I spoke with were friendly and helpful in providing best guesses on accessible routes through town.
Blair says he “was pleasantly surprised by the reaction from our customers. They were happy to see us and they were very supportive. I expected to hear a little pushback — ‘When are our lights gonna be back on,’ or ‘Oh, we’ve been out for two days,’ things that we’ve heard with other storms. It didn’t happen on this storm. People were very supportive. They offered us coffee, and food and water.” He adds, “This is probably the storm restoration I’m most proud to be a part of. I saw crews from all over the country work together safely. I was glad to be able to help these people that desperately needed it.”
My power was restored the Sunday after the storm. A few days later, on a trip to the local transfer station, I saw a man slowly unloading the ruins of a house from his trailer into a giant waste container. There were floorboards, pieces from bedroom sets and plumbing, a life slowly being thrown into the trash. In a somewhat uncharacteristic act, I offered to help. The man politely said he could handle it on his own. “What a storm … ” I said awkwardly, nodding to the wreckage. “This wasn’t the storm,” he laughed. “It was a planned demo.”