The strongest windstorm in recent years ripped Rochester to shreds Wednesday — blocking roads, damaging homes and businesses, destroying trees and knocking out electricity to more than 100,000 customers in Monroe County and tens of thousands more nearby.
It was the most widespread power outage here in 14 years. With very cold temperatures and snow in the forecast, some may have to endure without electricity for days.
Countless roads throughout the area remained closed Wednesday evening by fallen trees and downed power lines, and first responders raced from one report of sparking wires to another.
Monroe County’s 911 emergency communications system fielded more calls for service than any single day since the epic ice storm of 1991, officials said, and pleas for help were so frequent and frantic at one point Wednesday afternoon that the system became overloaded and officials begged people to stop calling.
“I’ve lived here for 40 years and never seen anything like it,” said Peter Petry of Irondequoit, who was taking photographs of wind-whipped Lake Ontario on Wednesday afternoon.
It made for a chaotic evening commute.
Travel was snarled everywhere, in part because traffic signals on some roads lacked power and didn’t work. The towns of Greece and Irondequoit, among the hardest-hit, declared states of emergency and ordered motorists off the roads and pedestrians off the sidewalks.
“We just want everyone to stay home until we can identify all the hazardous areas. We want the community to be safe,” said Bill Reilich, town supervisor in Greece, where the Unity health-care complex lacked full power and a tarp on the roof of Arcadia Middle School had been partly shorn off, forcing a partial evacuation of the building.
Most school districts in Monroe County will be closed Thursday, including Greece, East and West Irondequoit, Rochester, Webster and Gates Chili.
A freight train may have been blown from the tracks in Genesee County, and bowled-over tractor-trailers blocked several expressways Wednesday afternoon. A number of flights at Greater Rochester International Airport were delayed, canceled or diverted in-flight to less-windy airports.
“We tried to land and it was the worst turbulence of my life,” said Nichole Gantshar, a passenger on an American Airlines regional jet whose pilot aborted a landing here Wednesday afternoon. She and five fellow passengers — one of them acclaimed young author Yaa Gyasi — wound up driving back to Rochester in a rented SUV.
Winds gusted to 40, 50 and 60 mph much of the day, broke 70 mph around 1 p.m. and then hit an astonishing 81 mph at 1:35 p.m. It was the second-strongest wind gust ever measured at Greater Rochester International Airport, trailing only one of 89 mph recorded during an unusual summer storm in September 1998.
The winds were responsible for the worst spate of power outages here since an ice storm in April 2003. Power lines were still falling Wednesday night.
“Customers in many areas may be without power for multiple days,” RG&E spokeswoman Juanita Washington said. Officials said the company would not be able to make a full assessment of the damage and provide restoration-time estimates until Thursday.
Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo said about 150 utility crews from the Albany area were coming to help restore power in the Rochester region.
At 11 a.m. Thursday, about 91,800 Rochester Gas and Electric customers in Monroe County — nearly a third of all of its customers in Monroe — had no electricity. That number was up more than 1,000 from Wednesday night.
An additional 19,300 National Grid customers in the county also were without power at 11 a.m. Thursday. That number was down about 2,000 from the night before.
Another 36,700 customers of RG&E, National Grid and New York State Electric and Gas in the five counties surrounding Monroe were without power at 11 a.m. Thursday. That total was down several thousand from Wednesday night.
The severe ice storm in 2003 left 142,000 RG&E customers in the region without electricity.
There were no reports of serious injuries related to the storm. The emergency department at Strong Memorial Hospital treated about a half-dozen weather-related cases during the day, a spokeswoman said.
Monroe County set up three EMS stations for residents in need of oxygen. Patients who have lost power and oxygen equipment functionality and can’t reach their provider may go to one of three locations: Perinton Ambulance, 1400 Turk Hill Road; Gates Ambulance, 1001 Elmgrove Road; or Greece Ambulance, 867 Long Pond Road.
The Greater Rochester Chapter of the American Red Cross opened a shelter at the David F. Gantt Center, 700 North St., Rochester, for people displaced by or without power after the windstorm.
An unknown but considerable number of homes and businesses were damaged by falling trees or the wind itself, which sheered off roofs and shingles in many places. Social media sites were filled with pictures of structures rendered uninhabitable by a gust of wind.
“I’m still in shock. I just can’t get over this,” said Susan Iannaccone, surveying the Culver Road dental office where her husband, Dr. Brian Iannaccone, practices. The wall of the dental waiting room was staved in by a huge fallen tree.
“Thank God we were not open,” she said.
Clusters of utility poles were reported down in several locations, including South Winton Road in Henrietta and Long Pond Road in Greece, which could necessitate days-long reconstruction work.
More than 150 poles fell or broke during the windstorm last Wednesday, which lasted several hours in the evening and had a peak gust of 64 mph. State regulators said then they were launching an investigation into the reason for so many pole failures.
Neither RG&E’s spokewoman nor a spokesman for the state Public Service Commission responded when asked Wednesday how many poles had failed in this week’s storm, which had much fiercer winds and lasted for a full half-day.
Meteorologists said strong winds of the sort experienced last Wednesday and again this Wednesday are not unusual this time of year, when powerful low-pressure systems roam the continent. Most of the high-wind events in recent years have occurred in January, February or March.
This particular system was fueled by a very strong current of air 3,000 to 4,000 feet above the surface, said National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Hamilton. But what made the winds in this storm unusually potent was, of all things, the plentiful sunshine Rochester enjoyed on Wednesday.
That sun heated the earth’s surface, causing ground-level air to rise and create thermals — the updrafts that can cause airplane turbulence, Hamilton noted.
The thermals mixed with the fast-moving wind several thousand feet up, displacing that cooler air and causing the current to dive toward the surface, where it enhanced the winds already blowing there.
The result? People saw things they’ve never seen before: The windows of a van blown out by the wind as it sat on a downtown street, pedestrians knocked clean off their feet, a piece of wood propelled through the side of a house like something from the move Twister.
Though it seems incredible, the wind may have dislodged a CSX freight train from the tracks. The 29-car freight derailed in the town of Batavia, Genesee County, at just about the time that 81 mph wind gust would have been buffeting the area, though railroad officials weren’t prepared to say Wednesday whether the gale was responsible. No one was hurt in the accident, and no spills or leaks were reported.
At Rochester’s airport, many of the scheduled commercial flights Wednesday afternoon were canceled or delayed, and some pilots chose to divert in-flight to Syracuse, Buffalo and even Pittsburgh rather than land here during the peak winds. At least some of those diverted flights eventually arrived in Rochester later Wednesday.
Rattled passenger Gantshar, who is executive director of the Rochester City Ballet, was returning from a family visit when her plane began to shake and shudder on approach to the airport here.
“All of a sudden the pilot went back up to a pretty high altitude. There was really bad wind shear and we weren’t able to land,” she said. “The pilot made the very wise decision that it was not safe to land. Obviously a lot of other pilots were making the same decision. And all of us on the plane were glad they did.”
Gantshar’s American Airlines flight, which originated in Chicago, was the sixth to divert to Syracuse, she said. The airline planned to charter a bus for the passengers, but they feared it would be a long wait. So six of them, including author Gyasi, who is giving a talk Thursday at the University of Rochester, found their own way back.
“It was without question the worst flight of my life,” Gantshar said. And things didn’t improve all that much once she got to Rochester.
“I can’t go home because I have no power,” she said Wednesday night.