Weekly Feature

2012-08-02 / Front Page

Memories swirl about tornado


The 1987 Cheektowaga tornado moves south on Union Road, headed toward the Holiday Showcase restaurant. Below, photos show the damage the twister caused to residential neighborhoods on George Urban Boulevard, Miami Parkway and Cherokee Drive. 
Photos courtesy of the Town of Cheektowaga The 1987 Cheektowaga tornado moves south on Union Road, headed toward the Holiday Showcase restaurant. Below, photos show the damage the twister caused to residential neighborhoods on George Urban Boulevard, Miami Parkway and Cherokee Drive. Photos courtesy of the Town of Cheektowaga Do you remember what you were doing 25 years ago?

Well, if you lived along George Urban Boulevard or Union Road, you were probably cleaning up debris. Or maybe you were looking for a new place to live.

On Thursday, July 30, 1987, the famed Cheektowaga tornado touched down and tore up houses, trees and garages along its path of destruction.

The F2 funnel damaged 47 homes on George Urban, Union, Miami Parkway and Cherokee Drive, completely destroying three, and wreaked havoc with businesses. It ripped the roof off the Holiday Showcase restaurant, causing it to remain closed for a year and a half, and dropped a billboard on the Putt-Putt miniature golf course. It tipped over a tractor-trailer hauling hazardous materials on Interstate 90 and backed up traffic for hours.

Miraculously, not a single injury was reported.

According to the National Weather Service, the winds topped out somewhere between 113 and 157 mph.

“I wouldn’t want to see anything stronger,” said Cheektowaga’s disaster coordinator, Earl Loder, the man charged with coordinating the response from all of the town departments.

That tornado has left lasting impressions in the town and throughout Western New York. And it seems like everybody has a strong memory of it.

Polly Thoman was driving on George Urban Boulevard with her 1-year-old son in the back seat when she saw debris flying around in her rearview mirror.

“I guess at the moment I did not think I was in danger, not knowing what was really going on,” she said. “I drove that way a couple of days later, and I think that’s when it all sank in that I was that close to it. Then I was counting my lucky stars that I was not hurt or directly involved.”

Jeanine Schneider — then Jeanine Trzecki — was supposed to celebrate her 11th birthday that Saturday at Putt-Putt but had to cancel her party because of the damage to the course.

“I remember being nervous after hearing the reports on the television about the tornado,” she said. “Although I was living in Hamburg at the time, both sets of my grandparents, a couple of my aunts, uncles and cousins were living in Cheektowaga. It seemed unreal to me that a tornado would happen in Western New York. At that time I didn’t think that it could happen here.”

Luckily for her, management at Putt-Putt quickly rescheduled the party for another date and even gave her an “I Survived the Cheektowaga Tornado” T-shirt as a birthday present.

Jim McEwen was walking his dog near his home on George Urban Boulevard when he saw the funnel go by on the Thruway. He quickly ushered his family into the basement of the house and waited out the storm.

After the storm had passed, McEwen helped with the cleanup efforts on George Urban and Miami.

“I felt sorry for people,” McEwen said after his house escaped the tornado’s wrath.

Michele Sette stayed late at work at Prolift on Dale Road and still got stuck in the traffic that was backed up on most of Cheektowaga’s major roadways. Her usual 10-minute drive to her house on Diane Drive took close to an hour.

“My neighbor’s brother and sister in-law lived in the neighborhood off George Urban that was hit hard, but luckily their home was not touched,” said Sette, who admitted she has always been afraid of tornados. “I remember taking a ride to their house a few days later and saw trees down, roof damage to homes and sheds, and debris all over.”

After first touching down near the intersection of Maryvale Drive and Harlem Road, the tornado sliced tree tops in the Cedargrove area as it headed on a southeast trajectory. It tipped over the truck on the Thruway before slamming houses on George Urban, Cherokee and Miami. It continued moving east until it reached Union Road, when it turned directly south. It was headed toward Cheektowaga Central High School but disappeared just after tearing through the Holiday Showcase restaurant.

The National Weather Service reported that the storm lasted about 10 minutes from its initial touchdown at 4:30 p.m. and that it moved at a rate of about 15 mph.

For Loder, the first order of business was to make sure his wife, June, got home safely. She was working at Cheektowaga Central High School.

From their home on Greenleaf Lane, he saw the funnel touch down and start to move toward the school.

“I was worried about her,” he said. “I was monitoring the scanner. I could hear people screaming. I knew we had a problem, but I didn’t know how severe. I was anxiously waiting for her to come home. I wanted to be sure she was safe. As soon as she pulled in the driveway, I took off.”

Loder set up a command post at the U-Crest Fire Hall on Clover Place and instructed the firefighters to bring victims there.

In surveying the damage and talking to residents, he heard amazing stories.

“There was a guy who was doing dishes when a tree limb went through the house and just missed him by inches,” Loder recalled. “There was one house, where the garage was completely destroyed, but a couple of plastic flower pots on the porch never moved. They couldn’t have been more than 10 pounds, and they were sitting just a few feet away.”

For the cleanup effort, crews from the Sanitation Department dropped Dumpsters at the corners on streets where the tornado did the most damage to allow residents to dispose of debris. Police officers also closed off the area to prevent looting and turn away the sightseers who came to view the devastation and were making the residents uneasy.

The town did not qualify for federal assistance, however, since nobody was killed and the monetary damage figure wasn’t high enough, according to Loder.

In the aftermath of the tornado, Loder and others from the Office of Emergency Management prepared guides on how to deal with a tornado. He still has them in his office.

The town also became very active with the National Weather Service, earning the distinction of a “storm-ready” town.

“That’s a pretty extensive program you have to do to get that award,” Loder said. “We put out a lot of information in emergency guides, not only for tornados, but for other things, too.”

And it was a good thing, too. The town’s preparedness came in handy when a second tornado touched down in 2006 and followed a similar path, this time traveling east on Walden Avenue.

“That was a little less, maybe an F1,” Loder said. “But it was almost the same path as the first one. That’s when we got the nickname of ‘Tornado Alley.’”

email: mkrueger@beenews.com

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