Epsom – July 25, 2008 – The deadly winds, swirling black clouds and torrential rains of Thursday gave way to chain saws and portable power generators Friday as determined residents and work crews fought their way through a 20-mile swath of fallen trees and damaged homes.
Under brilliant blue skies that belied the terror of less than 24 hours earlier, chain saw crews continued clearing roads, making paths to fallen power lines and helping residents remove huge trees from atop homes.
Based on the damage, the National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado with winds in the 111-135 mph range hit nine towns, moving from Deerfield, where it killed a woman in her home, to Epsom, Barnstead and Alton. It then ripped through New Durham, Wolfeboro, Ossipee, Effingham and Freedom. The governor’s office said officials still were examining damage in Pittsfield to see if the twister also hit there.
The tornado obliterated a home in Northfield Lake in Deerfield, trapping Brenda Stevens, 57, and her 3-month-old grandson between the collapsed first and second stories. She was dead at the scene, but officials said the infant was protected by being in a void. Deerfield Fire Chief Mark Tibbetts said Brenda Stevens’ husband, Harley, had headed downstairs a little before noon Thursday because he was worried by the heavy rain and black clouds rolling in.
“No more than he got downstairs and it started throwing him from side to side and rotating him around the house,” Tibbetts said.
Stevens then “was blown out the side of the building and found in the side yard,” state Fire Marshal William Degnan said. He said the boy’s crying led firefighters to him in the rubble. He was admitted to Concord Hospital, but a spokesman said no information would be released at the family’s request.
The tornado and severe thunderstorms left an intermittent path of destruction stretching about 20 miles northeast from Epsom to New Durham. Officials estimate that at least a half-dozen homes were destroyed and hundreds were damaged. The storm snapped off thick trees, toppling them onto homes and roads and taking down hundreds of utility poles and telephone and electricity wires.
Friday, Gov. John Lynch led a group of state and federal officials, including members of the congressional delegation, to survey the damage. Their first stop was Epsom, across Northwood Lake from the Stevenses’ house, which was surrounded by yellow caution tape. Wood the same color as the house bobbled in the water in front of one home. The debris included baseball cards, chairs, and a small stuffed animal.
Picking their way over fallen wires, around fallen trees and chain saw crews, the group met with residents who were trying to pick up the pieces. Rita Lambert said she was surprised to see Lynch.
“I didn’t think we rated that much,” she said.
But Lynch said seeing people and hearing their stories was valuable to both sides.
“It’s important for me to get out there and to reassure them that I know about their situation and that working with the congressional delegation, we’ll do everything we can to try to help them,” he said.
Chris Pope, the state emergency management director, gave residents his cell phone number. In Barnstead, he stopped on Winwood Road, where countless fallen trees had buried homes.
“Where’s the house?” Lynch asked Todd Shaw, who pointed through a mishmash of trees to his brother’s home.
“Oh my God,” said Lynch. “How are you going to get in there?”
“We’ll cut our way in,” said Shaw.
Roads were lined with utility trucks, trucks hauling replacement telephone poles and tree service trucks. Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency teams were in the area. And neighbors were helping neighbors. In Barnstead, a group of people showed up around noon and began giving firefighters and work crews bottled water.
“People are great,” said Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Mulcahy. “Look at that.”
At one home, a garage was sliced in half by a fallen tree. State Fire Marshal Bill Degnan pointed at the garage and said he was concerned residents throughout the stricken area would get hurt trying to recover items from such unstable buildings. One Barnstead resident was injured Friday morning while clearing debris. Mulcahy said the man was knocked out by a falling tree limb.
Epsom Fire Chief Stewart Yeaton said he also was concerned that with so many people using portable generators, there could be carbon monoxide poisonings. Not to mention inexperienced people running chain saws. “I’ve seen them out there wearing sneakers,” he said. “It’s still a dangerous situation.”