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Microburst weaves a path of destruction through region

The home of Larry and Sylvia Rivers was one of the worst hit, as high winds caused trees to topple onto buildings and vehicles along Hill Road in East Tilton on the Fourth of July. (Donna Rhodes) (click for larger version)
July 11, 2012
TILTON — Late afternoon storms ripped through central New Hampshire on July 4, sending emergency responders scrambling to calls of downed trees and power lines, but the worst of the damage struck the Winnisquam region when what officials suspected was a microburst tore through quiet neighborhoods along the waterfront in three towns.

Hill Road in East Tilton bore the brunt of the brief storm, with 30 homes damaged and trees toppled everywhere.

"The wind got so loud all of a sudden, and all you could hear were trees crashing all around," said one stunned resident the next morning. "It just came on so fast."

When the Tilton-Northfield Fire Department arrived on the scene, Chief Bradley Ober said the road was impassable, and live power lines were strewn across the road and yards, creating an extremely hazardous situation.

"We had to walk carefully through the neighborhood to check on people. Twelve people from two families ended up going to a shelter for the night, and a lot of others could have left except for the lines down everywhere," Ober said.

Public Service of New Hampshire was dispatched to the scene immediately, and crews did all they could to secure the area, working late into the night. The following morning, they were back, stringing wires and replacing poles that had snapped in the winds.

"It's really a miracle no one was killed," said one crewman.

Many cars were crushed by trees, and one late model compact vehicle was impaled by a large pine that went through the windshield.

The worst hit of the houses that line Hill Road was that of Larry and Sylvia Rivers. Sylvia said she was sitting at the kitchen table when the storm hit. As she heard trees toppling, she got up and stepped back from the table just as the ceiling fell around her.

"I couldn't believe it. It was just devastating. I had sheet rock and insulation all around me," she said.

Besides the trees that came through the roof, the family sadly learned they lost a couple of their chickens.

"The house is probably totaled," said her husband. "But the good part is, no one was hurt."

The couple was taken to nearby Water's Edge Inn, where they were sheltered for the night, then contacted their children, who were in Maine for the holiday. The children, in their early 20's, raced home to see how they could help.

"The Rivers kids have been amazing," said neighbor Andy Reals last Thursday. "They've been cleaning up all around here, picking up all the debris and clearing the walkways. They've been a big help."

Others pitched in to help wherever they could, including total strangers who heard about the destruction and continue to stop by and see what they can do to assist the residents.

"Everyone has been so kind," said Sylvia Rivers. "The Red Cross has been here, and people are just offering to do whatever they can."

Across the bridge in Belmont, the storm struck the neighborhood of Sunset Drive with similar intensity and resulting damage. Deputy Chief Sean McCarty of the Belmont Fire Department said they received numerous calls, including one for a tree that fell on an occupied vehicle by Aaron's on Route 3 by the lake.

"We made it through okay though, considering all the other things that went on that day, and no one from the vehicle that was struck had to be transported, so that was the good news," McCarty said on Thursday.

The Lower Bay Road area of Sanbornton was another hard hit section of the Winnisquam region, where several trees also fell, tearing power lines and snapping poles. Chief Paul Dexter reported more than two dozen calls in just a short period of time, and said the evening was "just crazy" as his department raced from site to site to secure the scenes and tend to residents.

Due to the heavy volume of calls at Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid's dispatch center, Dexter said his department began emergency operations on their own frequency to lessen the burden on mutual aid.

"We have a very good repeater system on Steele Hill that we use, and we set up our command post at the fire station to handle all the calls," he said.

Dexter added that Sanbornton's Police Chief, Steve Hankard, Public Works Director Johnny Van Tassel, and their crews worked into the night with his department to clear roads and keep residents safe. He also credited PSNH for their response.

"It was excellent team work all the way around," Dexter said.

Isolated areas remained closed to traffic on Friday as trees were still being removed, but most power and other services were restored within 24 hours of the storm.

Weather officials confirmed that a microburst was the cause of the extensive damage. According to the National Weather Service Web site, a microburst is a downdraft of air in a thunderstorm that is less than two and a half miles in size. The phenomenon can result in damage very similar to a tornado and can contain winds as high as 150 mph in extreme cases.

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