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Lake Erie's 'bathtub effect'

A fierce, fast-moving wind storm ripped through the region this morning, causing 60-mph gusts, 10- to 12-foot waves and, by the time it's all over, a nearly 50-degree drop in temperatures.

The storm also brought a six- to eight-foot surge of water, known as the "bathtub effect" or seiche (pronounced "SAY-sh"), to this end of the Lake Erie, prompting reports of some flooding along the waterfront.

In the midst of all the wind and water, there was one bright spot -- a high of 61 degrees at 1:30 a.m. today, tying a 123-year-old record for this day. Temperatures are expected to fall into the teens by tonight and stay there Saturday. Wind chills tonight and Saturday will be near zero.

"All in all, this is a powerful, fast-moving storm," said Tom Niziol, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's office in Buffalo.

The storm resulted in most schools canceling classes. There also were reports of downed power lines and scattered power failures across the region.

More than anything else, it was the wind that forced schools to close. Niziol said the gusts reached a high of 54 mph at Greater Buffalo International Airport but that winds of more than 60 mph were reported elsewhere.

In Rochester, there was a report of a 77-mph gust at the airport.

National Grid officials reported that about 18,000 customers had lost their electrical power as of 8 a.m., but the numbers were climbing quickly, from about 12,000 at 7:30 a.m. Most of those outages were in outlying counties.

"In the last half hour, we've started to pick up more outages in the metro area," said Stephen F. Brady, National Grid's corporate communications manager.

Authorities were keeping a close watch on Route 5 in the Town of Hamburg, but police there reported no power failures or serious flooding problems by 8 a.m.

"As of right now, Route 5, between Big Tree and Camp, is the only issue we have," said Hamburg police Lt. Peter Dienes. "The waves are coming up and putting water on the road, and with the temperature dropping, there's the possibility of ice and slush."

The six- to eight-foot water surges are serious because Lake Erie is already 23 inches above its low water level, and flood stage at the harbor is eight feet.

The weather phenomenon known as a seiche occurs when strong winds push waters to abnormally high levels at one end of the lake before they eventually "slosh" back to the other end.

"Put those 15-foot waves on top [of the high water levels], and you have some spillover and flooding problems along the lakeshore area," said meteorologist Tony Ansuini.

That's nothing new at Hoak's Restaurant, perched on the lake along Route 5 in Hamburg.

Noting that the restaurant's wooden "storm windows" were already up, Kevin Hoak reminisced about some of the big storms the family-owned restaurant has endured.

"I've got pictures of the whole building frozen, with water going over the restaurant," he said.


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