Sound and fury of tornado ended in Knox

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Tornado neighbors: Tammy Peterson shields the sun’s bright rays as she surveys damage hours after a tornado ripped a hole in Steve Guernsey’s barn roof. An outpouring of help has aided the affected property owners in stabilizing their lands and lives.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Unprecedented: The powerful winds on Bozenkill Road years ago had damaged Nicole Burian's property, but her standing-seam terne roof, which she said was around 100 years old, hadn’t before been torn away as it was on May 22. 

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Before: A photograph of Steve Guernsey’s farm prior to being hit by a tornado on May 22 lies on the seat of his truck on Wednesday. Guernsey estimated the total cost of destruction was at least $30,000 to $40,000 and wasn't sure he would be able to sustain the farm.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

After: Steve Guernsey’s shelter for his cattle and equipment was knocked into a pile of steel and tarps after the tornado came through Schenectady and Albany counties. Two of his barns have badly damaged roofs.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Lost to Mother Nature, the two-story barn that weathered the high winds for decades — originally owned by farmer Milton Barber — collapsed when the tornado came to Bozenkill Road. 

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Risk: The danger didn’t subside after the tornado on May 22. A National Grid technician, Tim Slatterly, works along the utility pole where tin was lodged from one of the roofs below. “Fuses are blown…They are not dead and grounded,” Slatterly told The Enterprise before going up. “They’re still considered hot…I’ll cut the wire.”

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

The work begins: Joe Simmons had a new job on Thursday, May 22, as he picked up the pieces from Steve Guernsey’s barn scattered across his Knox farm. 

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

The power of the recent tornado’s gusts is scaled in many ways, including the distance of some 200 yards that a piece of tin from roofing on Bozenkill Road tangled in the branches of a tree next to its broken companion.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Lifted and moved: A massive, hand-hewn post in Steve Guernsey’s barn is shifted out of its mortise. In another beam, the cattle farmer is able to stick his finger in the mortise, where the tenon of the post originally sat for a century, according to Guernsey.

KNOX — A gust of wind swiped the bowls out of the haymow window as Steve Guernsey was feeding his dozens of farm cats last Thursday afternoon. He thought he might wait out the storm staying in the second story.

Guernsey backed toward the center of the hay-filled loft and watched out its opening as the rain-sodden tornado made its way from Delanson to his Bozenkill Road cattle farm in northwest Albany County.

Hail rapped loudly against Guernsey’s tin roof as he stood next to a tall post. He saw the metal elevator that carries bales into the barn twisting in the winds and knew he was experiencing more than a thunderstorm. Guernsey moved further toward the center of the barn and hoped to get on solid ground through an opening on the barn’s other side.

“I didn’t dare get out because of flying tin and other debris,” said Guernsey.

He thought the barn might topple, as did a metal-framed, tarp-covered shelter for his cattle that had stood next to the barn. The barn was built with foot-thick hand-hewn beams, married with mortise and tenon joints.

Below him in the barn, Joe Simmons had taken cover by lying in a hay manger with his hands over his head.

“He told me they’re calling him ‘Baby Jesus,’” Guernsey said this week of Simmons, who helps on the farm and owns a few of the 30 head of animals.

Guernsey was smiling and eager to share his story as he toured the farm on Wednesday. His neighbor, Nicole Burian, was at her farmhouse across the street from the barn after volunteers had visited to clear debris into burn piles yesterday morning. She said she has been amazed by the help that has been offered, including scaffolding set up by a neighbor to seal her roof temporarily with tarps. The tornado peeled off the roof, revealing old wooden shingles beneath on the massive American Foursquare.

Burian has reminded her teenage daughter they’ve only lost material things. Their cat, Willow, was found alive outside.

Nails and splinters of wood from the barns traveled across the road and were scattered inside Burian’s home, along with the original glass from nine of its imploded windows. Not only was her standing-seam roof peeled off but two smaller structures on her property were completely destroyed.

Sheets of tin were snarled around trees and in brush hundreds of yards away, one of them met with Steve Guernsey’s heavy bunk feeder of more than 100 pounds in an adjacent field. (View the image gallery)

Defining a tornado

The tornado’s path started in Delanson in Schenectady County, where it created the most devastating damage by tearing at the roof of a motel, removing the wall of the Duanesburg volunteer ambulance headquarters, and disassembling a home on Route 20, which received widespread media coverage.

“I don’t know why, but for some reason it strengthened up for a very short period of time and there was very little left of that house,” said meteorologist Stephen DiRienzo with the National Weather Service in Albany.

Tractor trailors were tipped on their sides navigating Interstate-88 in the storm. Rain was so heavy that the twister couldn’t be seen, earning it the designation “rain-wrapped.”

Assessing the damage, meteorologists DiRienzo and Vasil Koleci of the National Weather Service rated the site of the destroyed home to be EF3 and all other parts of the tornado’s roughly seven-mile path to be EF0 and EF1, with EF5 as the highest rating. The Enhanced Fujita (or EF) Scale rates the strength of a tornado based on the damage it causes. It refines the six-category scale developed by Tetsuya Fujita in 1971.

“It’s an inexact science,” said DiRienzo. “But, generally, to get trees uprooted without snapping, it takes high-end EF0.”

No deaths or injuries resulted from last Thursday’s storm, according to the National Weather Service. The tornado survey described its period from 3:33 to 3:55 p.m. and its maximum wind speed as 140 miles per hour.

Traveling in a north-to-south direction, the twister lifted at least once, DiRienzo told The Enterprise. He said it appeared to have two vortices in a picture sent in from bystanders. The Weather Service heard reports of broken windows and downed power lines.

Spokesman Patrick Stella of National Grid said 3,300 customers in the area of Guilderland, Delanson, Duanesburg, and Altamont were without power on May 22. More than 90 to 95 percent was restored overnight, he said, and the company replaced a dozen or so utility poles along the tornado’s path.

Going through rural areas, the tornado’s most common damage was to trees.

“In the summertime, obviously the deciduous trees have more leaves on them, so they become more like a sail,” said DiRienzo. “They can also be top heavy. It’s been raining on them. There’s a lot of water in the cells of the trees, and it’s in the wood itself.”

DiRienzo said NWS Albany’s 19-county forecast area has had only three EF4 tornados in the last 63 years. The average is two or three tornadoes per year. Tornados form in just the right conditions, but why, when, and where are hard to determine.

“I wish we knew,” DiRienzo said of tornado-producing conditions. “We’d nail them two days ahead of time and put them in the forecast.” What is known, he said, is that storms riding along cold fronts are more likely to produce them.

The storm that bore a twister on May 22 started in Hamilton County, in the Adirondacks. With an average width of a quarter mile, the tornado was smaller than the resolving capabilities of many computer models, according to DiRienzo.

“We’re at least a few years away from being able to forecast them,” he said. “We know days are more likely than others.”

The National Weather Service issues warnings, then documents and assesses the damage, both to determine what happened and for climatological studies.

“Loss Cause Farm”

On May 22, just after the tornado hit, the sun shone as Guernsey and Simmons collected shards of wood. Emergency responders closed off the road, took down a long piece of tin wrapped around a utility pole, and restored power.

Two neighbors with a pair of little girls threaded through the adjacent field, picking debris from the tall grass along their trip to get a better vantage of the destruction, now bathed in bright light.

Nicole Burian, the farmhouse owner, was driving toward the scene from her job as a licensed practical nurse at an Albany Medical Center outpatient clinic. She received text alerts from a local television station while at work. Meanwhile, her daughter took cover with her track team in a basement at Duanesburg High School.

For both Guernsey and Burian, the total cost of the damage was still being assessed on Wednesday morning. To replace the collapsed metal-frame structure would cost $20,000, Guernsey guessed, putting the total cost estimate around $40,000.

The barn with the haymow wasn’t insured, Guernsey said, but other barns on the property were.

Burian estimated that to replace her farmhouse roof would cost as much as $20,000, as well. A modest barn on Burian’s property was demolished by the tornado, destroying many antiques that were stored there, Burian said, like a wooden washing machine. Her ex-husband, a contractor, built a two-story playhouse with a slate roof that was completely blown away with its trampoline and swing set.

With its frame partly finished, the playhouse met the same fate during a storm in 1998. It wasn’t declared a tornado, Burian said; a funnel never touched the ground. In 1990, a tornado visited the same area, a farm further east along Bozenkill Road, where Carl Peterson’s silo was toppled.

A single mother, Burian said she lives paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to replace the roof. She’s hoping workers through Habitat for Humanity can help. She said she couldn’t afford a homeowner’s policy after tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011, putting money instead toward heating the large house, so she has renter’s insurance.

The policy can reimburse Burian to replace some objects, including the playhouse, but, if the overall cost is too high, it may only offer money for the depreciated value of those things.

Burian’s house and Guernsey’s farm were originally part of the same property, overseen by farmer Milton Barber. A black walnut tree he planted with his father behind the house was twisted in last week’s storm to the point of cracking at its base and will be removed.

Countless neighbors have helped clean the properties. Burian’s house is surrounded by four burn piles and a large Dumpster rests in her drive.

Red Cross volunteers, veterans from Team Rubicon, and the Ancient Order of the Hibernians have visited to help with the cleanup at both properties. Teachers and friends from Duanesburg schools came to help Burian, too. Neighbors were boarding up the farmhouse’s window holes through the evening after the tornado.

Burian’s colleagues donated 10 days of vacation time, so she’s taken the week off to work on the insurance claims and clean up.

Nearly a week after the tornado, Guernsey was loading steel framing into a large Dumpster, aided by neighbors Bob Hofmann and Alex Luniewski. Guernsey handed over his business card, noting the name of his Charolais beef operation: “Loss Cause Farm.”

Guernsey lives in Rotterdam. He’ll soon be 58 years old. He said his farm runs in the red, kept afloat by his wife’s income and his paychecks. Until recently, he worked 10-hour night shifts in a grocery warehouse four days a week. He says his job was cut to part-time and shifted to another warehouse so he is looking for full-time work elsewhere.

If he doesn’t get a job that keeps him free during the day and the collapsed structure isn’t replaced by winter, Guernsey said, he may not be able to continue the farm.

“It’s a disease,” he said of why he still runs his farm. “Farming is something that’s in your blood. It’s for a love of the cattle.”

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