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Cleanup efforts continue in aftermath of tornados

Cleanup efforts are continuing after  three tornadoes touched down Thursday in Southern Erie County and Allegany County.

One tornado swept five miles across Hamburg and Orchard Park; the other two-and-a-half miles across Holland a few minutes later. The National Weather Service confirmed that a third tornado touched down in Allegany County, causing some damage in Angelica and other communities.

The National Weather Service said the first storm wave hit Hamburg hard, around 12:30 p.m. Thursday. An EF2 tornado blew five miles across some of the more rural areas of the southtowns - with 105 mph winds.

NWS said the next tornado hit about 12:50 p.m. in Holland. This time it was an ER1, with 95 mph winds over a path of two-and-a-half miles.

Trees were uprooted and fell. Power went out for thousands. Flash flooding bogged down drivers and closed roads. Rain water, including some torrential downpours, was everywhere.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent in hundreds of emergency generators for those with medical needs and no power, 100 members of the National Guard for cleanup, and dozens of State Police to help traffic on closed roads.

"Mother Nature likes to test us, I think," said the Cuomo. "Seven feet of snow was a test. Flash flooding the other week was a test. The tornado is a high-level test. I think maybe we graduated to the next level of testing by Mother Nature. But Buffalo and Erie County are ready for it and they can handle it."

Cuomo toured the Erie County Fairgrounds, where hundreds had to shelter in place when the storm hit. 20 roofers who had been working on the fair grandstand were at lunch at the time. Now they have to fix storm damage in addition to the repairs they were already making.

"Count our blessings, no fatalities," Cuomo said. "There was extensive property damage. That can be fixed. Homes can be fixed. Debris can be removed. From my point of view, as long as we haven't lost human life, we're ahead of the game."

Also at the fairgrounds, Erie County Executive Poloncarz confirmed no fatalities.

"We're very lucky," Poloncarz said. "This passed in a location which we know in three weeks will have thousands of individuals here, for the Erie County Fair and, thankfully, there were only a few hundred on site. We're also very lucky that when it comes to the towns of Hamburg and Orchard Park, which have some very high level of population, it hit the least-dense population centers in the town of Hamburg and Orchard Park. It hit the rural sections."

Fair Marketing Manager Marty Biniasz said there was no notice.

"I noticed outside my window that it got pitch black and, within a matter of seconds, the sound of a massive freight locomotive right outside the window started roaring through," Biniasz said. "I have an office that backs up to a window that is in a tunnel area right between the east and west grandstands. So whatever wind was coming through was magnified by coming through this funnel in between these two buildings."

Biniasz said his staff shut off their computers and moved deeper into the grandstand complex and watched roofing fall to the ground.

"Walked out to our hallway where it actually took three employees to hold onto our glass doors because they were ready to fly out," he said. "While we were there, we were watching debris from the roof, giant parasols that we have for shade, pieces of equipment, a fairly long pergola that we use for our garden exhibits collapse, that collapsed on most of our employee cars."

Biniasz said the storm damage also will complicate preparing for the fair opening, scheduled for August 9.

"This taking place 20 days before the fair is going to be a challenge," he said, "but we're members of the Erie County Agricultural Society - farmers, people that work the land, experience this on a daily basis - and it's our spirit to clean up, rebuild, get it done and open up the gates on August 9 as we always have for our 178th fair."

At the fairgrounds, historic trees were blown over, branches were blown across the grounds, and picnic tables wound up on a roof. The Erie County Department of Public Works said 200 cars at the fairgrounds had to be towed away due to damaged broken windows and the like.

New York State Electric & Gas said in a statement that at its peak, more than 24,000 customers were without power after the violent storms moved across the state Thursday.

"NYSEG has nearly 1,000 personnel responding to some of the hardest hit areas in Allegany, Chemung, Chenango, Erie, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tioga, and Tompkins counties....NYSEG also called in additional resources and assistance from neighboring companies and contractors including National Grid....NYSEG’s first priority is to respond to reports of downed power lines to keep the public safe."

Erie County Sheriff helicopter Air-1 surveyed the area and provided video of damage in Chestnut Ridge Park area and on the fairgrounds.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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