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Potsdam declares state of emergency after storm pummels village

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"POTSDAM — Frank D. Spagnolo looked on as contractors assessed the torn-off roof of Sergi’s Italian Restaurant, the Market Street business his father, Sam, had started 45 years earlier.

"High-powered construction lamps illuminated the scene; it was after 11 p.m. Tuesday. Eight hours earlier, a storm had ripped through the area and hit Potsdam especially hard. It destroyed the apartments above Sergi’s and caused water and ceiling damage in the restaurant. Roof debris stretched over the parking lot and onto the adjacent Village Wines and Liquors store.

“It took it right off, the whole kit-an-kaboodle,” Mr. Spagnolo said. “As long as no one was hurt, that’s all that matters. There’s not too much we can do tonight, really. We’re just trying to get things cleaned up a bit.”

Sergi’s was just one of many spots afflicted Tuesday in a region where damaging thunderstorms are rare. By Tuesday night, Administrator David H. Fenton said the village had condemned both Sergi’s and the Delta Zeta sorority house, where a tree had sliced into a roof, until further repairs could be made. Trees had fallen onto two or three additional village buildings, but damage was not severe enough for condemnation of those structures, he said.

“We haven’t confirmed it was a tornado, but it sure looks like it to us,” he said. “Just about everybody south of Main Street is still without power.”

Village officials declared a state of emergency Tuesday after high winds and heavy rain caused trees and power lines to fall and damaged buildings, leaving thousands in the area without power.

By 1 a.m. Wednesday, National Grid was reporting 4,192 customers remained without power - 3,250 in St. Lawrence County and 942 in Franklin County. Approximately 15,000 customers had been without power in the two county area in the first few hours after the storm slammed through the area.

Several hundred people remained without power in the Potsdam area, and there were also large outages in the Parishville, Hopkinton-Fort Jackson and Morley areas. National Grid was reporting that some customers could be without power until late Wednesday, but crews had restored power hours ahead of their scheduled times in several parts of St. Lawrence County by late Tuesday night.

The storm began around 3:15 p.m. No injuries have been reported.

Emergency responders set up a command center at the Potsdam Fire Department to coordinate response to the damage; Mr. Fenton and Deputy Mayor Reinhold Tischler were still there at 11:15 p.m.

Mr. Tischler and Town Supervisor Marie C. Regan declared a state of emergency for both the village and town of Potsdam.

A travel ban has been instituted for the village. Police with loudspeakers ordered pedestrians off the streets at about 5 p.m. The use of village streets was limited to emergency personnel and utility companies Tuesday evening and remained in effect late last night.

Downtown Potsdam was a surreal scene late Tuesday evening; a bizarre combination of the ordinary and the devastated. Police tape restricted pedestrians from walking in front of Sergi’s, but just across the street, Maxfield’s remained open and bar customers congregated inside. Just beyond Maxfield’s, the sidewalk connecting downtown to Fall Island was blocked off; a chunk of roof which blew off the Evans and White Ace Hardware Store at 1 Maple St. was hanging on a nearby power line. Additional roof debris continued to float in the Raquette River.

Mr. Tischler said Sergi’s roof debris had landed just short of the Potsdam Fire Department during the storm. Potsdam officials said one person was inside the Village Wines and Liquors store when a piece of Sergi’s roof fell on top of the structure, but he was not injured.

Onlookers described storm clouds that turned blue and green as they approached the village. There was significant structural damage to several other buildings in the area, including Arlington Inns Apartments. Emergency personnel evacuated three to four other buildings — approximately 20 people — near the liquor store in the wake of the storm.

The campus of SUNY Potsdam suffered extensive damage as well.

Spokesperson Alexandra Jacobs said the roof blew off of Stowell Hall, an academic building that houses science classes.

The roof of Carson Hall, another academic building, also was damaged. That building lost some slate roof tiles to the storm’s high winds. Some damage was also reported at the Performing Arts Building construction site, and two unoccupied vehicles in campus parking lots were damaged by downed trees.

Ms. Jacobs said the school officials are currently evaluating the situation.

SUNY Potsdam will resume classes Wednesday morning. Power has returned to 100 percent of campus by Tuesday evening.

College officials also said Thursday’s Orientation session for first-year students remains on schedule.

Evening Summer Session classes and the remainder of the current Orientation session were cancelled on Tuesday following the storm. A small number of students and parents chose to stay on campus on Tuesday night, and their residence halls had electricity. PACES provided meals as planned in the Barrington Student Union.

Power and Internet service were restored to a number of buildings on campus around 6 p.m. Tuesday, with the remainder coming on line by 9 p.m. “The dedicated Physical Plant staff, grounds crew and custodians worked tirelessly to clear roadways of downed trees and debris, pump water from flooded basements and begin to repair infrastructure. Additional University Police officers reported to campus to assist with the response,” Ms. Jacobs said.

Clarkson spokesperson Michael Griffin said university employees were directed to report to work at their regular times Wednesday unless told otherwise by their supervisors. He also said classes will be in session Wednesday.

“Special thanks to the faculty, staff and students who pitched in to help this evening, and to those who are still out tending to damage on campus,” Mr. Griffin said Tuesday night. “We also thank all of the police, fire, rescue, and utility crews who have assisted us today.”

The American Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter at the Norwood-Norfolk schools at 7852 Route 56 for people left without power or otherwise hurt by the storm that blew through the Potsdam area today.

Residents described the storm as being sudden and severe.

“The trees were bent, and it just kept coming and coming,” Mr. Tischler said.

Ember S. Wakefield saw the roof blow off the Evans and White hardware store.

“The whole roof blew off, I could see it fly over the building,” he said.

Phillip J. Glowa, Fairbanks, Alaska, was in the area visiting his grandfather and walked outside when the storm hit.

“I went into the backyard and there were black swirls,” he said.

A weeping willow tree, planted by his grandfather in 1960, fell from the home on Leroy Street into a field at Potsdam High School.

"“It just fell right in front of my eyes,” he said.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Mike Muccilli, who works in Burlington, Vt., said hurricane force, straight-line winds of 70 to 80 miles per hour were likely the cause for the structural damage in the village. It takes wind speeds of that magnitude to take the roof off a building, he said.

Corey M. Saber lives in Arlington Inns, and described coming home to see the damage done.

“It looked like it was literally raining inside,” he said.

Apartment residents will have to find new places to stay while repairs are underway.

Mr. Spagnolo said he will know more about the building’s condition and the restaurant’s future tomorrow. But he vowed to continue the Potsdam restaurant his father started all those years earlier.

“This is a part of Potsdam,” he said. “My father has been here for over 40 years. That’s where it will stay.”

For more information about the shelter, call 268-0102.

Ryne R. Martin and Brian Hayden contributed to this report.




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