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Cleanup crews make good progress the day after tornado destruction

Two dozen members of the Army and Air Force National Guard joined more than 100 Erie County highway and park personnel Friday cleaning up tornado and storm-related damage to Hamburg and surrounding areas. The cost of damage and cleanup efforts is expected to reach into the millions.

Twin twisters ripped trees out of the ground and damaged homes and roofs in the Southtowns, and the National Weather Service confirmed a third tornado from the same storm system that touched down in Allegany County.

No injuries or deaths were reported from the three tornadoes, according to authorities.

Though most of the property damage occurred in the Town of Hamburg, other Southtowns communities like Holland, Colden, southern Aurora, southern Orchard Park were also hard hit.

West Falls resident Eric Tafelski, who works an overnight shift, said he was awakened at noon Thursday by a loud bang.

"My two dogs were going a little crazy," he said.

He walked outside to see a wild storm sweeping east and a pine tree from his side yard resting on the roof of his garage. The sight sent Tafelski into a temporary panic since his classic yellow 1981 Corvette was inside. But the car was fine.

"That was more important to me, honestly," he said.

On Friday, Tafelski spent the morning on top of his garage, pulling branches out of the roof, and later cutting up the tree and rolling it to the curb. He also filed an insurance claim.

With Friday's calm weather, county administrators said, all roads were open or partially opened by noon Friday and travel advisories were lifted.

Most county residents who lost power also had their power restored by the afternoon. About 1,600 New York State Electric & Gas customers were without power around 8 a.m. By 12:30 p.m., that number had been cut to 662. By 5:30 p.m., only 85 customers were without power, NYSEG said.

Municipal aid agreements have helped both county and town officials quickly get public right-of-ways reopened.

"We're in pretty good shape now," said Orchard Park Supervisor Patrick Keem, adding Gartman Road was the last road to reopen in the town and there still were scattered power outages.

Keem said he received calls offering help from area officials, such as Supervisor Sheila Meegan of West Seneca and Mayor Byron Brown of Buffalo. He also had received two calls from the governor's office.

"The county has been wonderful," he added.

The National Guard, which spent its time Friday helping highway crews in the Colden and Holland areas, was slated to finish their assignment here by 8 p.m. Friday, but local curbside and park cleanup efforts are expected to extend into next week.

The tornado that touched down in Hamburg was rated an EF2, which had an estimated maximum wind speed of 105 mph, according to the National Weather Service. The tornado that touched down in Holland was classified an EF1 and had a maximum wind speed of 95 mph, the weather service said.

The Erie County Sheriff's Office on Friday morning shared a video of some of the storm damage at the Fairgrounds, taken from the air:

Fair Grounds

Sheriff's helicopter footage of the Hamburg Fair Grounds.

Posted by Erie County Sheriff's Office on Friday, July 21, 2017

Tornadoes are classified from 0 to 5, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center.

The sheer strength of the tornadoes was captured in a video a Hamburg man posted on Facebook, a video that had topped 1.8 million views by early Friday morning.

Posted by Kevin Karas on Thursday, July 20, 2017

The weather service said the tornadoes were part of the same storm.

The Town of Hamburg was hardest hit, with a tornado carving a 5-mile path as wide as 700 feet in some spots that went through part of Orchard Park, as well. From Hamburg, the funnel cloud blasted through Orchard Park, tearing the roofs off several homes.

[Gallery: Twin tornadoes leave trail of damage in their wake]

Holland resident Mark Craig was setting up a horse show in the Hamburg Fairgrounds Ag Center when the building started shaking. The 60 to 80 horses inside were relatively unfazed by the tornado, he said, but outside, half a dozen horse trailers and campers were thrashed and damaged by debris.

One show participant, who had driven from Massachusetts, had a tree fall over his engine, Craig said.

The show still went on as scheduled Friday. But Craig, who lives with his wife and mother-in-law in Holland, said that aside from the damage at the fairgrounds, his family is going home to more damage. Two trees fell on his mother-in-law's house and crushed a dormitory window over the entrance.

"It just happened so quick, but nobody got hurt," he said.

A good Samaritan named Eric will be remembered by Rhonda Griffin of Marie Drive in Hamburg. She said the man drove by Thursday afternoon with a chainsaw, and started cutting up tree limbs that had fallen.

"He wouldn't let us pay him," she said, "not even his gas."

Griffin, was home with her dog, Chloe, who was nervous when the tornado blew over, knocking down trees and tree limbs along the street.

"It was awful. You had to see it to believe it," she said. "One minute everything was fine, the next it was total devastation."

She said her neighbor's daughter told her she had been mowing the lawn, and just had time to climb under the bushes next to the house to try to protect herself.

The Water Stone Grill on Camp Road, adjacent to the Thruway in Hamburg, is missing part of its patio, which flew over the restaurant building and across four lanes of the Thruway, landing tangled in a tree on the side of the expressway.

Fortunately, nobody was on the patio, said owner Themis Koutsandreas. He was checking the building and grounds over Friday with a contractor, and expected to reopen.

[The National Weather Service statement confirming tornadoes had touched down]

Tree debris cleanup continues

While much is returning to normal in the Southtowns, tree debris will still take days to remove, county officials said.

Hundreds of trees are down in Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchard Park, they said. The first priority for the park is to remove debris from shelter, playground and other public access areas where people could get hurt, said Daniel J. Neaverth Jr., county commissioner of homeland security and emergency services.

"What they're trying to do is get the roadways cleared and the areas where the general population would be," he said.

Until then, the lower portion of Chestnut Ridge Park and all trails throughout the park are closed to the public.

Bill Geary, deputy commissioner of highways, said about 80 highway employees have converged on the damaged Southtowns areas to do curb-to-curb cleanup, as well as assist dozens of parks employees at Chestnut Ridge.

The Town of Cheektowaga has lent county crews a tub grinder -- a giant wood chipper that can process whole trees -- and the county is also in the process of borrowing another tub grinder from the Thruway Authority, county officials said. The machines will be stationed at Chestnut Ridge Park and the Aurora garage to process any overflow debris from local municipalities that will be picking up roadside tree limbs.

"We do anticipate working all through the weekend," Geary said.

He added that county assistance with debris pickup is also likely to continue through next week.



Two tornadoes rip through Southtowns, wreaking havoc


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