UPDATED: The twister churned the cemetery grounds, mixing earth and mighty trees and bending grave markers perpendicular to the souls interred beneath.
The spinning winds struck Johnston where the town buries its dead and the neighborhoods where residents live their lives.
Many massive trees fell throughout town — on cars, homes and graves. The wind knocked down old-growth behemoths, soggy earth clinging to their giant root balls. The tornadoes sheared whole patches of woodland.
“I am grateful to report that despite significant damage caused by the tornado in multiple communities, there were no serious injuries or loss of life reported,” reports Johnston Police Chief Mark A. Vieira. “I applaud our residents, who heeded severe weather warnings and showed the strength of the Johnston community in the face of adversity. We were very fortunate that most of the damage sustained in town only consisted of downed trees, branches, and power lines.”
115 mph winds
The Friday, Aug. 18 storm drew the attention of meteorologists across the nation.
Following the path of debris, weather trackers have assessed the “hop-scotching” tornadoes struck in several Ocean State communities, leaving a trail of toppled trees, tangled wires and shaken residents from Scituate, 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, bouncing across I-295 and into Highland Memorial Park Cemetery where it caused severe damage, upturning trees and twisting flat tombstones.
“The tornado initially touched down in Scituate as an EF-2 tornado in the area of Byron Randall Road where the most severe damage occurred,” said Vieira, who also serves as Johnston’s Emergency Management Director. “The damage was consistent with winds around 115 mph. The tornado then hopscotched into Johnston heading in a north-easterly direction toward Central Avenue. The area of Central Avenue and Apple Tree Lane had trees that were snapped, one of which fell onto a home on Apple Tree Lane.”
Dashcam footage from a passing motorist caught a twister crossing Interstate 295. Police and fire crews responded to the scene where a woman said the passing funnel cloud picked up her car and spun it around.
“The tornado was positioned just northeast of Central Avenue before crossing Route 295 in the area of Exit 10 where a Dodge sedan was lifted into the air before being dropped back onto the highway,” Vieira recalled Monday morning, recapping the town’s response to the storm. “Fortunately, the driver sustained only minor injuries. The tornado then continued its path in a north-easterly direction through the area of Bridle Way and Carriage Way, which is just east of Pine Hill Avenue, where a number of trees were snapped or uprooted, some of which fell onto homes or vehicles.”
The winds blew 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,” Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. reported on Friday immediately after the storm. “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 150-acre burial ground.
Joe Swift, president of the Highland Memorial Cemetery and president of the Johnston Lions Club, (and past president and current treasurer of the New England Cemetery Association), wept when he visited Friday.
“The tornado went over about 20 acres of the cemetery,” Swift said several days into storm clean-up. “We don’t have an exact count, but the tornado destroyed in excess of 100 trees. These trees were between 40 and 100 years old, unfortunately. And unfortunately, it doesn’t fall under insurance.”
The cemetery has hired North Eastern Tree Service to help clear the fallen.
“We’re paying three crews $2,100 an hour for tree removal and clearing,” Swift said.
Some half-century-old trees, and older, 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 and bouquets scattered like dandelion seeds and large healthy trees broken like bones, poking through the earth’s cracked flesh.
“My crew was there when it hit,” Swift said. “We had one lady who hid in the back basement. A huge tree fell right in front of a truck with two of my drivers inside. I was crying when I visited. Thankfully no other buildings beside the farmhouse was touched and no one got hurt. But it devastated the grounds and we ask people to be please be patient.”
Thick trees snapped and fell in all directions — north, south, east and west. Some were sheared off halfway up to their canopies, while others toppled at the base.
Swift has never seen damage like this at a cemetery — any cemetery.
The cherry blossom trees are gone. Oaks. Pines. Walnut. About a quarter of the cemetery has been flattened.
“I’ve been in the industry 47 years, and took over Highland Cemetery 27 years ago,” Swift said. “I come from the south and I’ve never seen devastation like this from a tornado. I’m absolutely shocked. It’s going to take us years to recuperate.”
“Some homes also lost some shingles from their roofs,” Vieira said. “The tornado continued causing damage to the area of Highland Memorial Park Cemetery, Rhode Island Avenue, and George Waterman Road where a number of large trees were either snapped or uprooted. The damage observed in Johnston was consistent with winds of 90 to 100 mph, which is classified as an EF-1 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.”
An hour after the tornado passed, mourners lined up outside the chapel, behind a vintage white hearse. There were still services scheduled at the cemetery, tornado or not. And 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 — the calm after the storm.
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.”
“Johnston Police officers demonstrated exceptional professionalism while the storm unfolded and also provided mutual aid to the Town of Scituate in the area of Byron Randall Road,” Vieira added. “Their swift and coordinated efforts with the Scituate Police Department provided vital assistance to those affected by the tornado, which included assisting residents whose homes were encircled by downed trees and wires.”
It may be years before Highland Memorial Park Cemetery starts to look familiar again.
“We’ve been trying to contact FEMA … and other groups,” Swift said. “We have a couple of corporations that will look into it and find some funding for us. I know (Town Council) President (Robert V.) Russo was out that day and looked at it. We’ll see if there’s any way the town can help us. We are a vital part of Johnston. Whenever there’s a family that doesn’t have money, we always donate the service.”
While the chapel’s stained glass wall survived, and none of the cemetery's frequently used buildings sustained direct tornado damage, a historic building on the grounds may be a total loss.
“The farmhouse, there at the cemetery, is probably 200 years old, was completely destroyed,” Swift said. “The tornado crushed the whole front. We’re hoping the insurance company can help us with that since it’s a building.”
Insurance won’t cover the $2,100 hourly rate for tree-clearing. Swift estimates that will cost at least $100,000.
“We closed the cemetery for three days, unfortunately,” Swift said. “Sunday night, the cemetery was packed. People moved the cones and ignored the signs.”
About a dozen people have stepped up and volunteered to help the cemetery bounce back.
“Hundreds and hundreds of family baskets had been destroyed,” Swift said. “Most of our small garden sections, the tornado just picked them up and threw them. The cemetery’s not going to look the same, with all of those trees gone. One lady came out and looked, counted the rings (on one of the fallen trees) and said that tree was over 150 years old.”
Despite the twisted earth and lifted burial stones, Swift assures the families of interred loved ones that “none of the markers have been damaged, and more importantly, none of the grave sites were disturbed.”
“We had a lot of markers that were pulled up, but in time, we will reset all of the markers,” Swift assured families. “No graves were disturbed. No markers were damaged, but there were quite a few that were raised. That was our immediate concern ... When you lose over 100 trees, that’s going to take years. I just hope the families have some patience.”
“I am very, very disappointed that we never heard one word from the mayor,” Swift said Wednesday morning, nearly a week after the storm. “We have 150 acres altogether, about 80 are developed, and I’d say out of the 80 that are developed this tornado hit about 20 acres of that. Very honestly, I was very disappointed we haven’t heard from the mayor. This was a major thing in Johnston and the cemetery had major destruction.”
Reached by email later Wednesday morning, Polisena responded to Swift’s concerns.
“With all due respect to Mr. Swift, my primary concern is with … the living,” Polisena wrote. “Myself, the Assistant DPW Director, Fire Chief and Police Chief have all been working since Friday to make sure Johnston **residents** are taken care of. Working with Rhode Island Energy to restore power, RIEMA to determine the path of the tornado, clearing downed power lines and cleaning up debris for residents in their yards are my primary concern. So much so we allowed residents to drag any debris from their yards to the street and our DPW trucks went around town picking it up.”
Polisena recapped the town’s response to the widespread damage.
“When power to DPW went down during the storm Friday, I immediately went online and instructed people to call the Mayor’s Office with their requests,” Polisena continued. “When they called, either myself, my secretary or the deputy chief of staff immediately called the proper town officials on their cell phones to respond accordingly and immediately. I spoke to Council President Russo about his district and he informed me of the damage to residents houses and businesses. We had residents with their roofs ripped, their siding destroyed and yards made impassable by debris. That’s my primary concern.”
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.
Vieira praised spirit of cooperation between federal, state and local agencies.
“I want to commend our officers for their response, as well as extend my appreciation to the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, the National Weather Service, and the Johnston Fire Department,” Vieira said Monday. “Their assistance helped manage this situation effectively. I would also like to recognize the efforts of the Johnston Department of Public Works (DPW) for their dedicated cleanup work and Rhode Island Energy for promptly restoring power to the affected areas.”
Life in Johnston quickly returned to normal.
“DPW crews were out working all day Friday clearing debris and fallen trees from affected roadways to make them safe,” according to Vieira. “By Friday evening, all roadways were cleared and power was restored throughout the Town of Johnston.”
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