Likely tornado topples trees and unearths graves in Johnston

Car tossed by funnel cloud on I-295 in rare Rhode Island weather event


The spinning winds struck Johnston where the town buries its dead and the neighborhoods where the residents live their lives.

Dashcam footage shows a twister crossing Interstate 295.

Following the path of debris, meteorologists have been tracking the possible tornado and its trail from Scituate, into Johnston and North Providence.

A Tornado Warning blew up the cell phones of most residents in surrounding towns at 8:35 a.m.

An hour later, a path of fallen trees and wreckage could be traced from Scituate, into Johnston, crossing through the Central Avenue and Peck Road region, across I-295, into Highland Memorial Park Cemetery where it caused severe damage, upturning trees and unearthing grave markers.

The brunt of the storm then trailed down Rhode Island Avenue, across George Waterman Road, leveling trees and tossing a boat on Amber Street, before heading into North Providence.

“Since it hit the entire Town we are focusing on incoming requests from constituents and anything the first responders (police, fire) see while they are out assessing the damage,” according to Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. “All DPW crews are currently on the road.”

About a half-dozen cemetery workers took cover as the storm cut a wide swath through Highland Memorial Park, the town’s large, historic burial ground.

Some century-old trees fell over from the roots, pulling gravestones out of the ground. Others snapped in the center of their trunks. Paths and roads were blocked by trees throughout the cemetery.

“You can see the path right there,” said cemetery employee Devin Prentice. “We hid in our truck.”

Visibility dipped to zero as Prentice waited out the storm.

“We could feel it inside the truck,” he recalled. “It cut a path right through the cemetery. You can see the path right there. Look at that hole in the ground. It pulled a tree out of the dirt and threw it way over there.”

Prentice pointed to the hellish post-storm landscape; flower baskets scattered and trees broken like bones, poking through the earth’s broken flesh.

Mourners lined up behind a vintage white hearse. There were still services scheduled at the cemetery, tornado or not.

As the sun crept through the thick white cloud cover, a flock of Canada geese landed amid the cemetery’s scattered synthetic flowers and piles of broken wood.

Joe Carreau stood at the entrance of the cemetery. He helps guide processions in and out of Highland Memorial Park. Friday morning was a strange day, full of post-twister visits by curious residents and worried loved ones of those buried there previously.

“I can confirm a tornado touched down on 295 in the area of Greenville (Avenue),” according to an email from Polisena later Friday morning. “We also have extensive damage near Peck Hill (Road). On the western portion of Johnston and also extensive damage along George Waterman (Road) on the northeastern portion of Johnston.”

The loss of property and mature trees was palpable, but human casualties were minimal.

“Damage includes power lines, property damage, downed trees,” according to Polisena. “Thankfully we have had no reports of injuries.”

Down the hill from Memorial Park Cemetery, along Rhode Island Avenue, a mighty red oak snapped and fell onto the private road that leads to Bobby Baccala’s house.

Immediately after the storm, the dull rage of a chainsaw could be heard, starting from Baccala’s home, which was no longer visible from the street. The sound of the chainsaw was the only sign the occupants were safe and alive (and able to wield a saw).

Later in the morning, a RI Tree & Landscaping truck showed up, with Don Sepe, a tree surgeon. By that time, Baccala was drenched in sweat and rainwater. The professionals took over and Baccala took a break.

Sepe estimated the giant red oak was likely around 65 years old; it hadn’t been pruned and was heavily weighted with foliage and limbs on one side.

He said the heavy downpour that soaked the soil early Friday morning contributed to the easy toppling of so many trees. He said the wet dirt coupled with high winds created a dangerous mix for large, un-pruned trees throughout the neighborhood. Sepe expected Friday would be a busy day for tree pros throughout the Ocean State.

This story will be updated for next week’s print edition. Check out our photo gallery, with more than 20 images from Friday morning's storm.


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