A few hours before I had to get up at 5 a.m. Thursday, I awoke to the sound of crackling thunder and my bedroom window curtain violently flapping. Rain could be heard battering the house and a cool breeze gushed into my small apartment. I recall mechanically rising as if my body was apart from my consciousness and shutting the window. A glance at the clock revealed it was just shy of three in the morning. Though I didn’t know at the time, this was life foreshadowing my work day.
When daylight came, I would learn that as I was doing my best to fall back asleep in Norwich, a tornado was touching down in Pharsalia. When I got back up for work, there was a text message telling me the Emergency Command Center (EOC) in Norwich had been activated due to flash flooding.
As I came into the office, I was also greeted by a very awake and excitable Melissa Stagnaro who informed me she had heard of a number of structures being knocked down by the storm’s strong winds in McDonough.
A walk across a parking lot and I found myself in the EOC, located on the second floor the Norwich Police Station. The center’s walls are lined with computer workstations and the screens depict all kinds information through maps and graphs. When mobilized, all emergency responses in the county are directed from it.
Officials confirmed a number of structures were indeed knocked down in the Pharsalia and McDonough area. Eventually though it was determined that nearly all of them were actually in the Town of Pharsalia, near the border the two municipalities share.
At the time the wind damage took a second seat to the ongoing flooding crisis. As I spoke to people in the EOC, a team of firemen were staging a water rescue of a family from a submerging trailer along Pike Hill Road in McDonough. The Canasawacta Creek and Chenango Rivers were also past flood stage and rising. I was warned about traveling in the areas of Plymouth, Pharsalia and McDonough, where many roads were washed out, covered in water or blocked by debris.
I returned to the office and found my editor Jeff Genung possessing an immediate need for information. The scale of the weather event had become clear and whatever articles Melissa and I had planned on writing that morning became irrelevant.
I was ordered to hit the road by 7:45 a.m. to gather pictures, confirm damage and possibly get some reaction/on the scene quotes before “returning to base,” as Jeff says, within an hour. Meanwhile Melissa took my notes from the EOC, complied the information we had so far and made several phone calls to local officials before piecing together a story.
My original goal when I left the office was to reach the in-progress water rescue in McDonough. It never happened. The farther I traveled down State Highway 23, the more apparent the situation became. The Canasawacta was violent and flowing at a concerning height you rarely see. As I passed Foster Park, I could see it had completely swallowed the area and I noticed large currents, several feet deep, bashing against a yellow playground slide.
As I entered Plymouth, I was forced to drive through parts of the road partially cover by water. At some points the route was closed to just a single lane of traffic and my travel was stifled.
One of the first homes I saw surrounded by water had a crew of Plymouth firemen outside. I watched as one of them waded through over a foot of rushing water to retrieve an elderly woman stranded inside her one-story home. Behind her house, it looked like a fast moving river. A storage barn and another building in her back lawn struggled against the vast amounts of water.
As I headed further down Rt. 23, I stopped at several points: There was a school bus driving near a flooded roadway, several lawns turned into ponds and homes into islands, roads blocked by orange cones, rocks and water.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw an unusual number of toppled trees just off the roadway. As I glanced over, I noticed several of them just happened to be sitting on a house. I pulled over and went to find the homeowners.
The Ashton family told me their home was sideswiped by a tornado. I heard rumors of one hitting the area before I left Norwich, but to be honest you tend to hear a similar rumor during every major storm. But seeing the Ashtons’ home immediately had me sensing there was something more to it. There were perhaps half a dozen trees leaned up against the home and in the backyard, a path of broken timber could be seen bursting through the tree line. There were dozens of uprooted or snapped trees within sight and the home’s siding had been battered with mud.
On my way back to the office, I was again pulled from my car to investigate the furious water at the Old Mill, which typically features a three or four feet high water fall. But on Thursday it was transformed into top category white water rapid surging over a cliff. Several cars and about a dozen people had pulled over along the road to get pictures; I took one of an older man who crept up to the water’s very edge to get his own photo. Seeing the creek that way was impressive, but in another way it made me feel a little nervous.
On my way back I stopped this time at Foster Park to get a drowning playground photo, but the water had receded and wasn’t as entertaining as it was when I passed an hour earlier.
At just after 9 a.m. I passed Cortland Street and noticed Kurt Beyer Park was also completely flooded and water was rushing down the adjoining city streets. Police Officer Thomas Miller, a nice guy and friend of mine, was given the duty of closing the streets. As he worked, I caught a picture of him making an unbalanced leap through a puddle which later made its way to The Evening Sun’s Facebook and attracted some humorous comments. (Thanks for being such a good sport, Tom.)
I returned to the office just in time, which is really about 15 minutes late. I added the comments I retrieved from the Ashton family to Melissa’s story, posted photos and attempted to get confirmation on a tornado to no avail.
I was hoping to share my experiences later in the day about my hiking trip/tornado investigation to North Pharsalia, but I’m a little short on space. So please visit my blog on The Evening Sun website, evesun.com, later this afternoon to read about that.
Thursday certainly fell into the “you never know what to expect” category of this job and those days have always been my favorites.