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High winds slam Western New York; Storm sweeping through region is related to system that has devastated South<br>

Gale-force winds gusting to 83 mph wreaked havoc across the region Thursday, downing hundreds of trees and power lines, leaving tens of thousands without power and closing the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge for more than six hours.

Niagara County bore the brunt of big blow, dispatchers said, but Erie, Orleans and Chautauqua counties also were hit hard.

"The weather system we are seeing is a major system that has affected the entire Eastern U.S.," said Tom Niziol, head of the National Weather Service office in Buffalo. "It is related to the severe tornado activity that has been seen in the gulf region."

The storm devasted the South, claiming more than 290 lives.

"This equals the October Surprise storm ," Lockport Police Chief Lawrence Eggert said. "It's almost as bad."

At its height early Thursday afternoon, nearly 40,000 customers were without power. In Niagara County, more than 24,000 homes and businesses went dark, according to National Grid.

The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission closed the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge after a tractor-trailer carrying a light load tipped over at about 10:35 a.m. along I-190 at exit 25A, just south of the international crossing. The driver was not hurt. The bridge did not reopen until about 5 p.m.

Traffic was diverted to the Peace Bridge, where empty tractor-trailers were banned. The Rainbow Bridge was closed to buses or pedestrians, allowing only passenger vehicles to cross.

Other parts of Western New York also were wind-battered. Nearly 7,000 National Grid customers were without power in Orleans County; more than 2,100 in Erie, mostly in Buffalo and the Town of Tonawanda; and more than 800 in Genesee County, the utility reported.

National Grid spokesman Stephen Brady said crews would work around the clock to restore power but, he said, "It appears certain we will have outages that will carry into [today]."

He said a small number of customers may not have power back until Saturday.

National Grid plans to bring in crews from around the area, doubling its normal force to deal with the wind damage, Brady said.

The National Weather Service issued a weather alert for Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, northern Erie and Genesee counties Thursday morning, warning of sustained winds of 40 mph and frequent gust in excess of 60 mph.

Meteorologists hoped to cancel it at 4 p.m. but kept it in effect until 8 p.m. as the strong winds persisted.

At Niagara Falls International Airport, where wind gusts as high as 83 mph were recorded, a flight from Florida was delayed from landing by an hour. The highest gusts measured at Buffalo Niagara International Airport were 63 mph at 10 a.m. and 2:25 p.m. Sustained winds hit 46 mph.

The cities of Lockport and Niagara Falls urged no unnecessary travel during the day. Lockport officials also asked residents to restrict water use because power was out at a pump station in the Town of Tonawanda that supplies water to the city. Royalton-Hartland and Wilson schools closed early.

"Wilson Central Schools arranged for buses to take home any children who usually walk to and from school," said Superintendent Michael Wendt. "We've had some limbs down, some trees that blew down. Nobody has been hurt. We've kept kids inside."

A Wilson High School employee whose car was in the teachers' parking lot managed to move it about 10:30 a.m., moments before winds uprooted a towering pine tree that would have crushed it, according to reports.

Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John Chella said the department had everyone out on the streets, including him, addressing storm problems. He said the wind toppled a number of trees, some of which fell on houses and vehicles.

"It's pretty bad out here," Chella said from his cell phone as he walked past the City Market on Pine Avenue and saw a tree on a house. "There are live power lines everywhere."

Several roads were closed in Cambria, Newfane, Ransomville, Bergholz and Appleton because of downed power lines -- and an outbuilding in a soon-to-be-opened Cambria winery called "Gust of Son" was hit by a gust of wind, which tore through the roof.

"Perhaps the weather took exception to our name," owner Erik Gustafson said, trying to add some levity to the additional construction work ahead.

Downed lines and other problems were reported across Chautauqua County, and National Grid reported about 800 people in the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation area were without power Thursday morning.

The storm marked yet another wild day on the roller coaster of Western New York weather. On Wednesday, a temperature of 82 degrees -- just two degrees shy of the record -- was recorded at the airport. Highs today aren't expected to get out of the low 40s, with rain forecast. Sunshine and more moderate temperatures are expected Saturday.

News Staff Reporter Maki Becker contributed to this report.

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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