All schools in eastern Niagara County are closed today as first responders continue to clean up the mess left by the wind storm that whipped the northern portion of Western New York on Wednesday.
High winds wreaked havoc across the region on Wednesday afternoon, knocking trees onto homes and roadways, tipping over tractor trailers, downing power lines and transformers, and leaving tens of thousands across Niagara County without power.
The high winds, gusting at almost 60 mph, cut power to Niagara County government offices and tied up emergency responders throughout.
By late Wednesday afternoon, nearly 24,000 National Grid customers across the county were without power, including most customers in the towns of Royalton, Somerset, Hartland and Newfane. In the town and city of Lockport, which are serviced by NYSEG, 4,556 users lost power.
National Grid expected to have power returned for most by midnight.
Neighboring counties also saw widespread outages: over 34,304 users in Erie County, 10,390 in Orleans County and 16,568 in Genessee County.
"There's a lot of calls coming in from all over the place," State Police spokesman Jim O'Callaghan said in the afternoon. "It's straining not just us, but all agencies and first responders."
Dozens of roads were blocked by trees, utility poles, knocked-down transformers and live wires. Tractor trailers were blown over on South Transit Road near Tonawanda Creek, by Ridge and Checkered Tavern roads in Gasport and on the I-190 near Witmer Road in the town of Niagara.
Numerous houses were hit by felled trees, including houses on Morrow Avenue and Willow Street in the city. A transformer was brought down near the Niagara County Courthouse, cutting power to most county offices about 3:30 p.m. An enormous tree blocked East Avenue near Eastern Niagara Hospital. Some residents discovered trampolines and other items in their yard that did not belong to them. The marquee at Lincoln Square Plaza was ripped in half.
"We're extremely busy throughout the entire county — lots of trees down, trees in houses," Sheriff James Voutour said.
Despite the widespread property damage, Sheriff's Deputy Chief Michael Dunn said there were few automobile accidents and no serious injuries as of Wednesday afternoon.
Dunn urged residents to avoid downed wires, make sure generators are ventilated and that oxygen users contact their local fire departments. "Be safe," he said.
In Niagara Falls, Mayor Paul Dyster issued a travel advisory, asking residents to avoid unnecessary travel. Flights were diverted from Buffalo Niagara International Airport. The state Department of Transportation closed the Skyway in Buffalo. Dozens of area schools and community centers canceled afternoon and evening activities. Children at elementary schools who normally walk home were kept in school until their parents could pick them up.
Meteorologist Steve Welch, of the National Weather Service in Buffalo, said gusts reached 69 mph at Niagara Falls Airport and 81 mph in Rochester. At those speeds, winds become a danger. Gusts of 50 miles per hour not only uproot dead and weak trees, he said, they uproot healthy ones, too.
“With 55 mph, 65 mph winds, it can be dangerous to do a lot of driving,” Welch said.
Welch added that Wednesday's clear skies contributed to the wind storm. “As the sun heats the ground, it mixes the atmosphere," he said.
The wind damage meant long, hard hours for local highway and public works crews, who were tasked with clearing all that debris.
During the Common Council's Wednesday night work session, Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey thanked the city's police officers, firefighters and highway employees who worked to keep residents safe from falling trees and wires.
"When we're faced with difficult times, our staff step up to the plate every time. I continue to be impressed by them," she said.
Schools in the Lockport, Newfane, Royalton Hartland, Barker, Wilson and Starpoint districts are closed today. The closings were announced Wednesday night.