Storm's hammer strikes

Wednesday July 27, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- A "nasty" thunderstorm and its forceful winds pounded the Pittsfield area Tuesday afternoon causing widespread damage to trees, power lines, fences, cars and homes. The severe weather also contributed to the death of a motorcyclist in Hinsdale.

The heavy rains and high winds blowing through the region lasted only about 30 minutes, but left hours of clean-up work in their wake and thousands of local Western Massachusetts Electric Co. customers without power.

WMECO reported about a third of Pittsfield -- more than 8,100 homes and business -- lost electricity at the height of the storm, while another 134 experienced an outage in Peru. Company officials said utility crews planned to work through the night restoring power, which is expected to be completed by this evening.

Meanwhile, an 85-year-old man was killed after his motorcycle crashed into a fallen tree that was entangled with live electric wires. The accident occurred on Route 8 in Hinsdale at around 3:30 p.m. just as the storm was moving through the region. Authorities were withholding the biker's identity until family could be notified.

Mother Nature unleashed her fury around 3 p.m., primarily focusing on the center of Berkshire County. While the National Weather Service office in Albany, N.Y., reported winds of up to 60 miles per hour in Pittsfield, forecasters disputed claims by some residents that a tornado blew through the city.

"It was a classic, wet microburst," said meteorologist Steve DiRenzo. "The radar images don't support [that] there was a tornado."

Pittsfield emergency personnel were kept busy responding during and after the storm to numerous calls of down trees, tree limbs and power lines throughout the city -- some of the debris trapping several people in their vehicles. There were no reports of serious injuries.

"I'll bet we had close to 150 calls during and after the storm," said Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski. "Our 911 emergency board was so lit up, some calls rolled over to the Berkshire Sheriff's dispatch."

In Peru, the severe summer weather downed trees and power lines on Middlefield Road, forcing town officials to close the entire stretch of the major connector road between Hinsdale and Middlefield.

"It was pretty nasty here for about half an hour," said Selectman Edward Richards. "We've started the cleanup and [Western Massachusetts Electric Co.] is on its way."

While storm damage was reported throughout Pittsfield, Wahconah Street -- from the Pittsfield Cemetery to Berkshire Medical Center -- was among the city's hardest hit neighborhoods. Charles Street was one of several side roads blocked off due to storm damage as a large tree dropped onto electric, cable television and telephone lines. The impact bent a pair of utility poles at a 45-degree angle.

Several roads within the Pittsfield Cemetery were impassible as tree damage was strewn about the entire burial grounds, but the damage -- if any -- to headstones was unknown as of late Tuesday night.

Czerwinski, the city's emergency management director, anticipated many municipal employees will be in "major clean-up mode" today.

"It's all hands on deck," he said.

In addition, city workers will be repairing a section of the right field fence at Wahconah Park that toppled during the storm. The damage, in part, lead to the Pittsfield Colonials canceling their doubleheader on Tuesday night.

Team spokesman Chad Cooper expects the fence will be repaired by game time today.

"We have no doubt we will play our doubleheader [at 4 p.m.]," Cooper said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


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