Taken by Storm

T he cloud was monstrous. Some saw it as a cone spiraling into itself like a massive spin of cotton candy. Others saw a giant layered bowl on a dense pedestal of rain. The National Weather Service later identified it as a tornado that touched down several times on May 15 over a nine and a half-mile path from Beacon Falls to Hamden.

For some Hamden residents, it was a brand new sight. For others, it was déjà vu. On July 10, 1989, a tornado touched down in Hamden and New Haven, rendering 250 residents homeless, damaging 500 structures and leaving 7,000 without power, according to the Hamden Historical Society’s Images of America: Hamden (2004).

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Hamdenite Bonnie Sargent remembers that day well. Her first inkling that something was wrong was the feeling in the air when she stepped out of her local corner grocery at Putnam Avenue and Carleton Street. “I said, ‘It feels like we’re going to blow up,’” she recalls. “There was so much pressure and humidity in the air.” Then she walked home to cook dinner. It wasn’t long before the sky turned “completely black, hail was flying around in the air the size of ping pong balls, and it was like when you watch the lottery numbers being drawn… [but] outside the kitchen window.” The roar was “like an airplane… right over your head.”

At the same time, George O’Brien, also of Hamden, was driving home from work. He remembers the sky as “both dark and sort of this odd green-blue color,” along with “continual lightning” high in the clouds. But there was no rain, and no wind—until a few minutes later, when he turned north on Whitney Avenue. Suddenly, all he could see was “a wall of gray water and branches and other debris.” Hail banged on the roof, and O’Brien says he “wondered if the windshield would go.” He pulled onto Armory Street, then right up against the wall of Edgerton Park, figuring that if a tree fell, at least the wall would break the force. He never made it home that night—all of the roads were impassable—and stayed with a colleague who lived on Willow Street.

The 1989 tornado tore the roof off Albertus Magnus College’s new athletic center—O’Brien recalls seeing pieces of it in Fair Haven—and ripped the walls off an apartment building at Newhall and Augur Streets. It looked strangely like a dollhouse, Sargent recalls, with a clear view in to people’s living spaces. The former Hamden Middle School lost its roof and all of its windows, according to the New Haven Register, which also reported that residents who lost their homes bunked in dorms at Quinnipiac University, then called Quinnipiac College.

Last week’s storm doesn’t appear to match 1989 in terms of property damage, but its scope was broader. Numerous roads in the north end of Hamden were still closed two days later. I hiked in a quarter of a mile on Mount Carmel Avenue, where several utility trucks were parked and workers were removing trees that had fallen on the historic Jonathan Dickerman House. One United Illuminating worker pointed up a grassy hill and told me to check out Sleeping Giant State Park.

Not a tree in the entire parking area had been spared. All were shorn of their tops, which had fallen into a precarious logjam across the picnic area and the trailheads, splitting picnic tables, collapsing the roofs of outbuildings and smashing the car windows of several extremely lucky hikers (no one was reported injured). A pair of cardinals flitted from perch to perch, while other birds called to one another from the disturbed canopy. In the background a chainsaw whined and stopped. The driveway was strewn with a soft bed of needles, and the pleasant smell of fresh pine belied the destruction. The few landmarks that remained—the kiosk at the Tower Trailhead, the pavilion atop the hill—seemed misplaced in an unfamiliar landscape, much like what Bonnie Sargent remembers noting on the day after the 1989 storm. “It was completely disorienting,” she says. “You had no idea where you were because the houses were so destroyed.”

The UI worker told me he’d just pulled one 17-hour day and was now working another. A colleague had told him he remembered the 1989 storm: more isolated, but also more devastating to homes and businesses. The trouble this time, he said, was the scope of the damage. They weren’t just rehanging downed wires; they were rebuilding the grid, one broken pole at a time.

Sargent remembers feeling “despondent” back in 1989, but her father, who had lived through Connecticut’s devastating 1938 hurricane, reassured her that nature would recover. “Now almost 30 years later, it’s interesting to look and see how really quickly things have grown back,” she says.

In the wake of last week’s storm, it may be hard to see that far ahead, especially for residents who are still trapped on tree-blocked roads and living without power. The cleanup has only begun. But it’s a safe bet that 29 years from now, everyone who saw last week’s twisted cloud will still be telling the tale.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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