Waterspout seen during storm

07/29/2010 12:00 AM |

A crowd of spectators waiting in New Suffolk to watch the weekly sailboat race around Robins Island last Wednesday instead saw an awesome spectacle of nature as the area, under an enormous anvil-shaped cloud, was pounded with severe lightning and near hurricane-force winds. The maelstrom also may have produced a small waterspout.

A massive, intense, fast-moving thunderstorm descended from across the Sound and moved overSouthold Town just before 6 p.m. on July 21. Before arriving here, the same storm generated a tornado that touched down between Plymouth and Bristol in Connecticut.

In Southold, the storm knocked down a tree on top of three cars parked at Town Hall for a Southold Town Trustees meeting. They included a car driven by a Suffolk County Water Authority official, who was thereto defend the authority’s controversial Orient water main plan.

“We get beat up every time we come out here,” said the water authority’s attorney, Tim Hopkins, who was in the parking lot surveying the damage Wednesday night.

The weatherunderground.com website reported last Thursday morning that citizens had called reporting a waterspout, essentially a tornado on the water, off New Suffolk at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

The thunderstorm moved southeast across Peconic Bay, wreaking havoc in the East Hampton hamlet of Springs, where downed trees cut off all roads connecting Springs to other hamlets.

Though the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Suffolk County just prior to the storm’s arrival over Long Island, it announced Friday that damage on Long Island had been “straight-line,” not cyclonic, from winds between 65 and 70 mph.

“A possible sighting of a waterspout was reported near New Suffolk, but it dissipated before reaching land,” according to the weather service.

John Murray, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said he’d received one “citizen’s report” of a waterspout off New Suffolk. “We’ve had enough heat and instability, a cold front and strong wind shear, so it’s certainly possible,” he said.

George Cork Maul, who lives near the New Suffolk waterfront, said that he saw the sky turn a greenish hue as he was walking home not long after the crowd at the site of the boat race had dissipated. He said he wasn’t sure it was a waterspout, but it certainly seemed to be an otherworldly weather phenomenon.

He said that he saw “what looked like a horizontal funnel of a mixture of wind and water. It came out of Cutchogue Harbor, went through the north race of Robins Island and then scooted across the bay.”

Boat captains waiting for the weekly New Suffolk race to start said that they had turned back after seeing heavy lightning moving in fast from the north, before spectators on shore saw the waterspout.

“We saw it building and my nephew was on his iPhone checking the radar,” said Dave Comando, one of the boat captains. “One cell ended up right on us. The lightning changed our minds right there. We went back with our tails between our legs.”

He said that he’d just made it back to his car around 7 p.m. when a torrential downpour hit.

“That’s just when we’d have been at the farthest point” in the race, Mr. Comando said.

New Suffolk resident Ellennora Goldstein was on the beach with a large group of people waiting for the start of the race when she saw all the boats turn around.

“When I went down there, the big thunderstorm had just approached. You could see the lightning coming from the Sound,” she said. “For a while, we thought the boats were going to go. The lightning was closer and it was really, really dark. The sky was a smoke-gray charcoal color. We left around that time.”

Cyclones are no stranger to New Suffolk, which suffered more than $1 million in damage from a Category 2 tornado — their winds can range from 113 to 157 mph — on Aug. 8, 1999.

“Waterspouts will happen. When you get severe thunderstorms, you’ve got turbulence over the water,” said Mattituck weather observer Len Llewelyn, who said he hadn’t heard reports of Wednesday’s waterspout.

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