Record-breaking deluge swamps Western New York - The Buffalo News

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Record-breaking deluge swamps Western New York

Swift water rescue teams pulled motorists from their submerged vehicles.

Law enforcement scrambled to close roadways quickly filling with water.

Geysers of water spouted up from downtown storm drains. Downtown office buildings filled with water. And children swam in the streets.

Most of Thursday’s record-shattering 2.29 inches of rain fell in less than three hours over a region already saturated from record-breaking spring precipitation.

All that havoc was wrought Thursday by what meteorologists call a “mesoscale convective complex.”

“It’s basically a large complex of thunderstorms associated with a system moving through,” said Jim Mitchell, a forecaster at the National Weather Service.

Thursday broke under ominous steel-gray skies and warm, soupy air. Dewpoints and temperatures stayed near 70 degrees. Then, that wave of low pressure rode a stalled weather boundary right into Buffalo.

“It just rung everything out,” Mitchell said.

No serious injuries were reported due to the flooding rains, but there were a few close calls.

Hair-raising rescues

The most hair-raising rescue occurred under a viaduct near Broadway and Greene Streets. Firefighters from Rescue 1 pulled three people from rising waters that quickly submerged a car just before noon.

“It could have been a fatality,” said David F. Kazmierczak, a freelance photographer who captured the rescue with his camera. "It had the potential for drowning."

Kazmierczak watched rescuers pull the victims through the windows of car and through the rising waters to safety.

“They couldn’t bring them through the doors because there was too much water pressure on the doors," he said. "The water was going to over-take the car."

Firefighters rescue people from a vehicle stranded in floodwaters near a Broadway viaduct in Buffalo. (David F. Kazmierczak/Special to The News)

The water kept rising -- up to the roof of the car.

Just down the street, Ferry-Fillmore District Police Officer Michael McAndrews’ cruiser stalled out in rapidly rising waters at Vanderbilt and Greene streets.

McAndrews was on his way to another flash flood at Broadway and North Ogden Street in Lovejoy.

“The water was a few inches but there were waves and as he was trying to maneuver around another stalled car, his engine stalled,” Police Lt. Anthony J. McHugh said. “He called for a tow truck and within about 5 minutes, the water had risen enough so that he couldn’t open the doors without flooding the car.”

McHugh said an animal control officer in the vicinity heard the call and arrived in time to help McAndrews. The lights on his police car were still flashing.

“She drove up beside the patrol vehicle and the officer climbed out the car window into the bed of the pickup,” McHugh said.

McAndrews was not injured.

Other Buffalo flooding

In another part of the East Side, Tim Orlowski watched as poorly draining and quickly rising water crept up to his family-owned St. John’s Funeral Home at Broadway and Koons Avenue.

“Probably within a 20-minute period, it went from you could drive in the street to you couldn’t get into the building," Orlowski said.

Water inundated a funeral home garage and also got into its basement. Orlowski’s father, Norbert, recalled it was the worst flood to affect the business since 1963.

Orlowski said that a funeral home employee’s car, parked across the street, was still filled with water about 2 p.m. The vehicle also failed to start.

Tim Orlowski tries to clear debris from a storm drain near St John’s Funeral home at the corner of Broadway and Koons in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Flooding afflicted a lot of the East Side.

Two streets, Goodyear and Titus avenues, intersecting with Broadway were inundated under about a foot of water. Few motorists were observed trying to cross but water covered the tires of the vehicles that did.

Flood waters also affected downtown office buildings like the Buffalo City Courthouse, which was evacuated and closed early Thursday.

"Building safety issues related to courthouse flooding,” was the reason for the closing, according to court officials.

Across town, police reported that Scajaquada Creek had risen to the point that it was nearly level with a section of the Scajaquada Expressway. The creek turned to rapids as it exited the tunnel and rushed through Forest Lawn.

Not everyone was apparently put out by all the water.

“There were kids actually swimming,” McHugh observed, while diverting traffic near Liddell and Broadway. “It had to be at least three feet deep. Their parents were there.”

People swim in the water on Liddell Street in Buffalo. (Photo courtesy of Lt. Anthony McHugh)

Heavy rains started just after 9 a.m. when a line of showers and thunderstorms converged on the Buffalo Niagara region.

Shortly before 10 a.m., Weather Service forecasters upgraded flash flood watches to warnings for much of the region.

By 11 a.m., the city picked up more than twice the rain than what had previously fallen this month in just two hours.

By noon, it was the wettest July day in almost 46 years.

Flood waters also affected several communities outside of the city.

Outside Buffalo

An elderly Alden woman was rescued from her home by boat after heavy rain caused Cayuga Creek to rise above its banks. A call for a welfare check was relayed to the fire company shortly before 2 p.m. at a house in the 13000 block of Clinton Street, according to George Gertz, second assistant chief for the Marilla Fire Co. When firefighters arrived, they found the 82-year-old occupant stuck in her house, which was surrounded by about 4 feet of water from the overflowing creek. After the rescue, the woman was transported to the home of a relative.

Alden woman rescued from home swallowed by flooding Cayuga Creek

Cheektowaga police announced several road closings including Genesee Street at Dick Road, William Street near the mainline Thruway, Union Road between Como Park Boulevard and Walden Avenue and Broadway near Harlem.

Town of Tonawanda Police closed Sheridan Drive between Colvin Boulevard and Belmont Avenue for a brief period after it became impassible.

Flooded streets were also closed in Lancaster, West Seneca, Boston and several other communities.

The storms resulted in some morning cancellations at Canalside and set back the Galbani Buffalo Italian Heritage Festival’s debut at the Outer Harbor until later Thursday afternoon.

Buffalo fireman Bryan Matteson drains water at the Italain festival at the Outer Harbor on Thursday, July 13, 2017. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Thursday evening's live concert at Canalside featuring Ghostface Killah with Slick Rick was advertised to be taking the stage "rain or shine."

Weather Service radar fails

Forecasters at the National Weather Service's Buffalo office had to watch the storm coming using four other radars – from Ontario, Cleveland, Binghamton and Montague.

Buffalo's main weather radar unit experienced a "major equipment failure" just after 6 a.m. Thursday.

"The timing was just not supreme," Mitchell deadpanned.

A part malfunctioned in the radar unit making it unable to rotate. Mitchell said a special crew will need to make the repair. Until then, there will be no radar from the Buffalo office. The fix is expected to take up to a few days to a week, he said.

Besides obliterating the 61-year-old daily rainfall record, as of 4 p.m. Thursday was the fourth-wettest single July day on record at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The rainfall also pushed 2017's precipitation total to the top as the airport's wettest year on record.

Since Jan. 1, 27.93 inches of precipitation has been measured at the airport weather station. That's more than double what fell – 13.3 inches – during the same time period in 2016.

Thursday's rainfall also triggered dozens of sewage overflows from area treatment systems.

Forecasters said more rain is possible.

Another area of low pressure was expected to move through the region overnight and possibly a second one on Friday. Both have the potential to bring more showers and thunderstorms. Forecasters extended a flood watch for the region through 3 p.m. Friday.

News Staff Reporters Lou Michel, Dan Herbeck, Aaron Besecker and Stacy Fernandez contributed to this story.

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