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The wrath of Hurricane Florence

Killer storm system that wreaked havoc on the Carolinas hit Saugus with a microburst and flooding

By Mark E. Vogler

Georgia Balesteri said she’s lived through earthquakes before when she lived out West.

But the storm that blew through the Riverside Park area of Saugus late Tuesday morning was even more terrifying, she said.

“It was the scariest experience I’ve ever encountered,” Balesteri told The Saugus Advocate Wednesday, as she stood out in her yard at the intersection of Victoria and Stanton Streets.

“It was pouring rain, and all of a sudden, it got so dark – pitch black. Everything was very quiet and all of a sudden, we heard this ‘whoosh’ and everything happened,” she recalled of the storm that officials of the National Weather Service have classified as a microburst.

“The trees were hit, barrels were going everywhere with trash blowing all over the place. It was scary. But after going through this, I can really sympathize with the people in North Carolina who went through so much more,” she said.

Shortly after 11 a.m. on Tuesday, the wrath of Hurricane Florence – which ravaged North Carolina, South Carolina and several other Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states – left its mark on Saugus. A storm system moving at an estimated wind speed of 70 to 75 miles per hour rumbled through the Riverside Park area of Saugus, with a maximum path width of 250 yards and the length of a mile. The storm moved with such fury through Riverside Cemetery and Riverside Park that people wondered if the town had been hit by a tornado.

Talk of a possible tornado piqued the interest of a survey team from the National Weather Service, which came out to assess the damage and investigate the cause. “They determined that a microburst, or straight-line winds, was the cause of downed trees and tree limbs, a few of which fell against homes,” the National Weather Service office in Norton wrote in a preliminary summary of the survey team’s investigation.

“The damage was not the result of a tornado,” the survey team concluded. “Although trees, tree limbs and some wires were downed across many parts of Saugus, the most concentrated area stretched from the western part of Riverside Cemetery eastward to between Stocker Playground and Lincoln Avenue.”

 

Challenging day for firefighters

“The Saugus fire department was stretched to the limits, handling dozens of simultaneous 911 calls for assistance for what we now know was a Microburst to come through a section of town,” according to Saugus Fire Department Lt. Damian Drella.

“All three fire companies (Engines 1 & 3 and Ladder-1) and along with all on duty office staff C-1 & 2 (chief and deputy chief) and K-1 & 2 (fire prevention Captains) all responded to calls,” Drella wrote in an email to The Saugus Advocate.

“A small fire broke out at 70 Lincoln Ave. where a large tree limb fell, pulling the electrical service off the house causing a fire. A large tree fell on Ballard Street, bringing down primary power lines causing them to burn in the street,” he said.

Ballard Street was closed for an extended time, and the area was evacuated until National Grid could secure the power. Several trees fell on Riverside Park; one landed on a house causing minor damage, and the others broke utility poles and brought wires and limbs down on cars and the street, according to Lt. Drella.

“On Rt-1 North @ the 846 Broadway Mobile home park which is a known Low lying area, flash flooding occurred bringing about 5 feet of water around the entrance area to the property, 3 residences were affected,” Lt. Drella wrote.

“The Fire Department used gas powered pumps and was able to bring down the water level to normal in a few hours, No relocation was needed or injuries reported. Residents do report that they will have water damage to their properties,” he said. “Riverside Cemetery on Winter Street has several tree and limbs brought down, one Headstone was reported to be toppled over and gravesite flags and flowers were damaged. Some [of] the cemetery roads were blocked by debris and the cemetery department was working on clearing and repairs.”

 

Storm’s violent visit to Victoria Street

A large tree in the backyard of 15 Victoria St. splintered at the base of its trunk, sending some large limbs up against the back of the house. But some of the biggest pieces fell harmlessly to the ground. Meanwhile, some of the branches and limbs came within inches of hurdling over the fence and going into the yard of the next-door neighbor Mike Moloney’s yard at 19 Victoria St.

Moloney was in good spirits Wednesday night as he prepared to grill a meal for supper. But the previous day posed a nightmarish threat to his family’s home. “It felt like my house was going to come off the foundation,” Moloney told The Saugus Advocate.

“I never felt anything like it. This was different. The sound was loud, like a freight train, or like a low rumble of thunder coming through. I also felt like I was in an airplane, with my ears feeling the increase in cabin pressure,” he said.

Moloney recalled having cut down a huge tree on his property about a dozen years ago, because of concerns about the potential for serious storm damage. “If I still had that, it would have been gone. It would have gone through my house,” Moloney speculated about the worst-case scenario.

“I really lucked out this time. No damage to my house. Then a short time later, I get a delivery of my new dishwasher. I couldn’t believe they were out on a day like that,” Moloney said.

“And what really stunk was it was trash day. My barrel went all the way down to the river. But I think for the most part that we all lucked out with this one,” he said.

 

Some neighborly kindness

On Stanton Street, Kevin Wildman was counting blessings for his family and all of the residents in the Riverside Park area who avoided serious injury or even worse. “It’s amazing that with all the damage that happened, nobody got hurt,” Wildman said. “The fact that nobody got hurt was a miracle, because it took down some big trees and took them down quickly.

Wildman recalled that he was cooking breakfast at around 11 a.m. when the electric power went off. He dashed downstairs to get his camping gear and camping lanterns to prepare himself for what could be a long period without power. As it turned out, the power didn’t come back on until about 7 p.m.

If there was a silver lining to this storm, it was neighborly kindness, according to Wildman. He was feeding a neighbor’s cat while the neighbor was in the hospital. Meanwhile, another neighbor was looking out for Wildman’s welfare.

“He came home and realized there was no power,” Wildman said of the neighbor. “The neighbor came over, knocked on my door and then handed me a power cord from his emergency generator and said, ‘Plug your refrigerator into this so it will stay cold’ – so I wouldn’t lose any food the time the power was out,” he said. “So we did good for one neighbor, and another neighbor did good for us.”

Wildman initially had some misgivings about the storm’s potential. “I came upstairs, looked outside and saw my trash barrels were blowing through the streets,” he said.

He went outside to grab the barrels and threw them back in the yard. Then he noticed a giant limb from his pear tree extending across his entire backyard from fence to fence. He heard on the police scanner that there was trouble in Riverside Park because of a tree across a powerline.

“I was lucky. My grill didn’t get crushed. My glass top table outside didn’t get crushed,” Wildman said.

“One of the neighbors lost his patio furniture. It flew into the marsh. But, overall, I think we’re pretty fortunate. The storm damage could have been a lot worse than it was.” he said.

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