The Mystery Of Microbursts

I took a walk around the neighborhood the evening after the microburst came to call in Lakewood, and I thought, well, that was one heck of a way to end the summer.

I stopped and talked to some of the crews that were still cutting down trees at 6.

The good news is that no one was hurt. With so many big trees lying on their side (and one on a roof), and because so many people were at home that day, it was a blessing that the only casualties of the storm were things that are replaceable.

Besides the storm itself, what I will take away from Labor Day this year was the willingness of village residents to lend a hand. Within 20 minutes of the storm’s passing, neighbors and other first responders showed up at the Lakewood Yacht Club with their power saws and their swim trunks and a desire to be of use.

It was remarkable.

Believing that the best way to get something done is to do it yourself, I saw people out in the water fetching a wayward boat, and dozens of other people sawing apart felled trees and righting toppled boats and dragging branches to the curb-and not even an hour had gone by.

It takes a village.

In an age where so many people believe it’s someone else’s duty to rescue them, the people of Lakewood-along with other responding crews – rose to the occasion and decided to help themselves.

Now with the neighborhood in the process of being tidied up, the only question left to ask is, “What the heck was that?”

No one was willing to use the “T” word (as in tornado) except for me. In fact, that’s what I shouted to my husband before we ran down the basement stairs last Monday.

It turns out, as we all know, that it was a microburst-a word that doesn’t seem to do the experience justice.

My mother called me back from Buffalo after the storm to declare that it was “just a microburst.” Perhaps my first call to her had sounded more like Dorothy reporting from Kansas, but who runs to the storm cellar shouting, “Hurry! It’s a microburst!”

Despite the diminutive sound of the name, microbursts can be as strong and as scary as tornadoes. Tornadoes are upwardly directed rotating columns of air; microbursts are strong downward-directed winds that usually occur in thunderstorms.

Here’s what happens: Intense winds drop away and down from rain clouds, hit the ground, and then fan out horizontally. Microbursts are short-lived, according to experts, usually lasting from 5 to 15 minutes. They are pretty compact, too, typically affecting an area of less than 1 mile to 2 miles in diameter.

People who have driven through microbursts report not being able see a thing outside of their car. “It was like being stuck in a big dust bowl,” someone from Minnesota explained. I had the same experience when I looked out the window during the peak of the storm: It was like looking at a fuzzy television screen. It was hard to understand what was happening outside, beyond the obvious hail and thunder and lightning.

In places that don’t have a lot of moisture, the rain in a microburst will often evaporate before it hits the ground. But microbursts in a place like Chautauqua County have what they call a “visible rain shaft,” which is probably what a lot of people saw when they looked out their windows here. According to the National Weather Service, microbursts can cause comparable-or even worse damage than some tornadoes. Wind speeds as high as 150 mph are possible in extreme cases.

Modern radar and wind sensors on the ground can often detect them, but a microburst is considered an unusual phenomenon that is not well understood. They weren’t even acknowledged until 1974 and have since been identified as the cause of several plane crashes.

In June 2003, a microburst in Potomac, Md., felled 96 trees at a golf course, its hail powerful enough to pelt the switches on the golf carts, turning on their lights. A zone of fallen trees marked where the microburst had traveled.

As is typical, the storm left as quickly as it arrived last Monday, leaving a path of damage in its wake.

But like so many emergencies, the storm brought out the best in people. That’s the take-away from this.

And I’ll add something else: After 22 years of living near the ocean, the weather in my new hometown is infinitely more interesting.

And often surprising.