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After funnel cloud tears through Southtowns, officials assess damage

A possible tornado ripped through Southern Erie County today, ripping off roofs, snapping trees and blowing out windows of cars.

Over 6,000 people had no power as of 6 p.m., according to National Grid and NYSEG.

[See photos of the storm damage]

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz issued a "no unnecessary travel advisory" for southern Erie County, particularly Hamburg, Orchard Park and Wales "due to numerous road blockages and power lines."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was expected to visit Hamburg to assess storm damage.

Tornado rips through Southtowns, wreaking havoc

Dan Neaverth, commissioner of Erie County Emergency Services, speaks to media at the Hamburg Fairgrounds. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The path of the storm appeared to follow a diagonal line from Hamburg through Orchard Park and Colden to Holland. Extensive damage was reported throughout those areas.

Elizabeth Czajkowski and her friend Brittany Fallon were hanging out with their children at Czajkowski's house in West Falls when at about 1 p.m., a tornado warning sounded on their phones.

Czajkowski looked at the weather radar on her phone and saw a tornado was headed straight toward her neighborhood.

"It was five minutes away," she said.

Czajkowski grabbed her daughter, Autumn, and her dog and Fallon picked up her infant son, Cash, and they ran to the basement.

What roads are closed due to wind storm?

"Just as I was getting to the stairs, you could see it. You could see everything spinning branches and leaves everywhere," she said.

The women and their children stayed in the basement for about 10 minutes as rainwater seeped in.

She shared a photo from the basement on Snapchat.

They came back up and saw the damage. Czajkowski's house was fine but many of the trees in her backyard had fallen down.They lost power too.

"Tornadoes are actually my number one fear," she said.

A video posted by Kevin Karas of Hamburg went viral of a car outside his home that was picked up by the wind and moved several feet over.

Posted by Kevin Karas on Thursday, July 20, 2017


"We've got hundreds of trees that are downed," Orchard Park Police Chief Mark Pacholec said at about 2:15 p.m. "We have a couple of houses with no roofs. We have power poles down. Power lines down."

He shared a photo of the wreckage from a house that lost its roof at Newton and Draudt roads.

So far, there have been no reports of injuries in Orchard Park, he said.

"Thank God," he said.

A roof was blown off a house Thursday July 20 in Orchard Park. (Photo provided by Orchard Park Police Chief Mark Pacholec)

Orchard Park Supervisor Patrick J. Keem was in a budget meeting in Town Hall when the skies turned dark and the wind picked up.

Keem's wife was home in Eagle Heights at the time.

"She said it was horrible, deer running through the woods," Keem said. "She grabbed our dog and ran in the cellar. She said she never heard anything like it."

Large trucks to move fallen trees and other help from the Erie County Department of Public Works was on the way, said Keem.

In the Holland area, part of Route 16 was shut down and multiple other roads were closed due to fallen power lines and trees, according to the Erie County Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office deployed ATVs to the Holland area and were hoping to get their helicopter up as well, said Scott Zylka, an Erie County public information officer.

Around 3 p.m. fallen trees and branches still covered parts of Lewis Road in Holland, but most houses appeared undamaged.

Amy Hewson and Marty Benzinger of Holland both left work early after hearing about the tornado via friends and news outlets. They came home to a blocked off entryway and an uprooted oak tree.

"The house is okay. The animals are fine, but the trees just took a beating," Hewson said.

For about 45 minutes Benzinger cleaned up trees on Lewis so that cars would have a clear path to pass. Their property however will take several days, possibly weeks, to clean up he said.

But they already have friends texting them with offers to help, Hewson added.

Liz Savage, who also lives on Lewis Road said she contacted her power company and was told powers would be restored around 3:15 p.m., and then later the time was then pushed back to 11:30 p.m.

Jim McDonnell was in the casino at the Hamburg Fairgrounds midday today when the lights suddenly went off and he heard crashing sounds all around.

"We heard: Boom! Boom! And the rain was pouring down like crazy. We went outside and at least 100 cars have their windows shattered," McDonnell said as he was hiding out in one of the buildings. The change in air pressure is believed to have caused the damage.

A worker at the fairgrounds told McDonnell that the roof of the Buffalo Raceway Clubhouse was ripped off. "The guy said some of the barns are gone," he said.

Employees and customers at the casino were taken to the marketplace building at the fairgrounds. Many had gone outside to survey the damage when another tornado warning came through. Hamburg Gaming officials said that a gas line on the roof was severed and the building was evacuated. About 150 people took shelter in the Grange Building on the fairgrounds, they said.

Hamburg Police Chief Gregory Wickett estimated there are about 100 cars damaged outside the casino at the fairgrounds.

"We do have a witness who said they saw a tornado," Wickett said. "It could have been a lot worse."

Erie County Fair CEO Dennis Lang said the fair would be ready to open Aug. 9.

"We've contracted with companies, fence companies, gas company and  everything else. We will be ready, it will take a little extra labor, a little extra overtime, get it all pulled together," he said.

He said the grounds lost "some beautiful trees," and property.

"Power lines are down, the east grandstand lost its roof, lost its announcer's stand for the race track, it blew out the back wall,  our umbrellas that were throughout the fairgrounds have been blown away. Bleachers have been blown away," he said.

There was no damage estimate available.

Lang estimated there were about 3,500 workers, gaming customers and people attending a horse show at the fairgrounds when the storm hit.

The Raceway announced this afternoon that it has canceled the rest of season because of the storm damage. There was just one weekend left in season.

The National Weather Service issued a rare tornado warning for portions of Erie, Wyoming and Cattaraugus counties until 1:30 p.m.

The weather service said radar showed there was a rotating storm that started near Hamburg about 12:30 p.m. It was headed east at 40 mph. It was over southeastern Erie County and southwest Wyoming County at about 1:10 p.m.

Ethan Stockman, 21, was at his home in the Country Woods development off of Southwestern Boulevard in Hamburg when he noticed strong winds outside.

"It started to get super windy. We looked outside the window. We saw that fence get blown down. There was just garbage and patio furniture and garbage bins blowing all over the neighborhood.
After the storm blew through, he went outside and saw a neighbor's basketball hoop stand snapped in half. A construction worker nearby told Stockman he saw a "spinning tornado" go by.

Damage has also been reported in Orchard Park.

Damaging winds were reported in the area but the weather service has not yet been able to confirm whether a tornado touched down, said Steve Welch, a meteorologist.

The weather service's storm team was headed out to the regions affected by the funnel cloud to determine whether a tornado had in fact struck. Welch said the team will look for twisted damage along with evidence of a path of storm damage with damage on either side.

Dan Neaverth, emergency services coordinator for Erie County, said they are waiting for National Weather Service and others to look at trajectory of storm to determine if it was a tornado. He said the winds came from the lake shore area of Hamburg, blew through the fairgrounds area, then to southern part of Orchard Park, then to Westfalls/Colden area and on to Wyoming County.

They'll be able to tell whether it was straight line winds or tornado depending on the type of damage to trees, he said.

Orchard Park and Hamburg towns are in the process of declaring a state of emergency, he said.

He said customers from the casino at the fairgrounds are now trying to leave. Many of their cars have side, back and front windows blown out. A drop in air pressure outside of the cars due to the storm could have caused the windows to blow out.

County Executive Poloncarz said that first responders are checking Chestnut Ridge Park, where some hikers were when the storm hit.

Some flooding was reported in Buffalo and Cheektowaga. William Street was shut down but was back open by about 1:30 p.m. Buffalo City Court was closed for the day.

Strong thunderstorms are forecast to continue south of Buffalo, the weather service said.

A severe thunderstorm warning was in effect until 2:45 p.m. for areas around Arcade, Franklinville, Belfast, Cuba, Rushford, Houghton, Chaffee and Ashford Hollow.

Weather service forecasts show the best chances for heavy thunderstorms to come between 3 and 8 p.m.

"Quite a bit of uncertainty exists with how the afternoon will play out," weather service forecasters said.

Forecasters said the latest models "suggest a greater potential for southwestern New York, generally south of Niagara Falls and Rochester."

"As far as thunderstorm hazards, precipitable water values will be on the rise and the risk for heavy rainfall and local flash flooding will exist," forecasters added.

Some of the strongest thunderstorms also will be capable of becoming severe with strong winds and hail possible.

Last Thursday morning, more than 2 inches of rain fell in less than three hours.

Flash flooding swamps roads across Western New York

The downpours inundated the city's storm capacity and quickly resulted in rising waters on roadways and under viaducts.

Several motorists had to be pulled from their vehicles by swift water rescue crews.

By day's end, today's rains could push 2017 back into the top spot for the wettest year to date on record at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Wettest years on record to date at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. (xmACIS2)

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