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Rare New England tornado lifts car from a highway as strong storms damage homes and flood roads

New England Severe Weather
Posted at 8:40 AM, Aug 19, 2023

A rare Rhode Island tornado lifted a car off a highway Friday as severe weather swept already storm-weary New England, damaging homes, flooding roads and toppling trees.

Tornadoes were reported in several spots in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. The National Weather Service said there were at least four tornadoes in the two states, and it was investigating a potential fifth in eastern Connecticut. No injuries were reported.

Firefighters rushed to help the startled motorist on Interstate 295 in Johnston and found her shaken but unharmed by the tornado, which lifted her car 10 feet off the highway, Johnston Fire Chief David Iannuccilli said.

Motorist George Viau saw it all happen, looking on in awe as the funnel appeared and the sedan with its lights on began to spin. The vehicle spun around at least once before being deposited on the highway near a guardrail, he said.

"Honestly I was little nervous. Maybe more than a little nervous,” said Viau, a commercial fisherman. “I watched what it did to the car, and I wondered what it if comes down the highway toward us. There was no exit.”

The tornado crossed the highway, and also moved through wooded areas and residential neighborhoods, Iannuccilli said. Meteorologist Glenn Field with the National Weather Service said the tornado was confirmed by radar and carried tree limbs and other debris aloft.

Tornado touchdowns also were confirmed in North Attleborough and Mansfield, Massachusetts, which are about a half-hour's drive from Johnston, and a tornado was spotted in Weymouth, Massachusetts, about an hour away, the weather service said. Another touched down briefly in Stoughton, Massachusetts, which is about 40 minutes from Johnston, the service said. And a fire official said a tornado damaged three homes in North Providence.

The weather service said it expected to release a complete assessment of the tornadoes on Monday.

Across New England, storms damaged homes and cars and made for hazardous driving. A few thousand power outages were reported. High winds damaged a home in Brockton, Massachusetts.

The hardest-hit communities in Rhode Island were Johnston and Scituate, with less damage in North Providence, Cumberland and Providence, said Melissa Carden, state emergency management spokesperson. Most damage reports were of toppled trees and downed power lines.

The storms took down about 100 trees at Highland Park Memorial Cemetery in Johnston, cemetery president Joseph Swift said.

Parts of Vermont, meanwhile, faced the possibility of flash flooding even as residents and businesses rebuild from extensive flooding this summer.

The weather service said central, northeastern and southern Vermont were under a hazardous weather outlook into Friday night, with the forecast calling for thunderstorms capable of producing flooding. Damaging winds were also possible.

Rain was expected in Vermont into Saturday, with some areas getting as much as an inch (2.5 centimeters). Storms earlier in the summer dropped as much as two months' worth of rain in parts of the state in the span of a couple of days.

Rockingham and Strafford counties in New Hampshire and York County in Maine were under flood advisories on Friday, while Essex County, Massachusetts, was under a flood warning.

New England usually gets only a few tornadoes a year, said Hayden Frank, a weather service meteorologist. Most — but not all — are relatively weak.

In 2011, a powerful tornado killed three people and caused severe damage in western Massachusetts.

And in 1953, an exceedingly powerful tornado killed 94 people and injured nearly 1,300 in central Massachusetts, including the city of Worcester. It last nearly 1 1/2 hours and damaged or destroyed 4,000 buildings.

For Viau, who witnessed the twister, the story didn't end on the highway.

He said the tornado continued five miles (eight kilometers) farther and hit his home, leaving a tree across his driveway and busting up his outdoor table and chairs. His smoker was destroyed and his grill dented.

His upstairs neighbor grabbed his children and fled with them to the basement as the tornado thundered through. “It was mean and vicious,'' Viau said. "It was one of the scariest things of his life.”