'Holding on for Dear Life': A Year Ago, 3 Rare Tornadoes Hit Cape Cod | CAI

'Holding on for Dear Life': A Year Ago, 3 Rare Tornadoes Hit Cape Cod

Jul 23, 2020

July 23 marks a year since three tornadoes touched down on Cape Cod, a rare event that surprised even people who saw the warnings.

  

Lincoln Hooper, director of public works in Harwich, recalls he and his staff were just getting out of a safety class in Orleans when their phones started going off with tornado alerts.

The last Cape twister he remembers hit the Yarmouth Drive-in back in 1977, so he wasn’t too worried as he headed back to the DPW.

But the storm started blowing.

“I was actually at the intersection of 137 and 39, driving through that intersection, when the power went off,” he said. “And I said, ‘Oh, Jesus, we'd better get back quickly.’”

He never saw a funnel cloud, but he knew this was no ordinary storm.

“During hurricanes, trees lay over in the same direction,” he said. “When I say trees were coming down in different directions, I've never witnessed anything like that.”

He couldn’t even look at the sky. Just dodging trees as he drove took all his attention.

“What I remember most is, for the first time in my life I actually feared for my life on Queen Anne Road, getting back to the DPW facility,” he said.

Just moments before, 10 miles west in Yarmouth, the same storm had produced another twister that ripped the roof off the Cape Sands Inn.

The motel’s housekeeping manager saw it happen.

“I was right there, right in front of 217,” she said. “I just backed into the room.”

Addie, who would not give her last name, recalls seeing a gray, swirling cloud headed toward them from Hyannis.

“I put my housekeeper in the room, because I seen it coming this way,” she said. “So I turned around. I threw her in the room with a cart and then turned around, seen it, and I was telling my maintenance man who was over there to get down.” 

Then, she took shelter behind the door.

“I was holding on to the doorknob for dear life, squatting down,” she said. 

In what seemed like an instant, the tornado tore off the top of the building, right above her head.
 

“The whole roof peeled like a banana,” she said. “We watched the flagpole bend like a happy straw. The roof went up and came back down.”

She found the housekeeper sheltering in the bathtub.

Afterward, the National Weather Service reported that a single storm, a supercell, produced multiple waterspouts and three tornadoes. 

One came ashore in Hyannis a few minutes before noon and then moved toward Yarmouth, doing much of its damage on Hazelmoor Road, near Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School.

Within 15 minutes, a second tornado touched down near the center of Harwich. Each brought wind gusts up to 110 miles per hour.

A third, in West Yarmouth, touched down for only a minute, with 90 mile-an-hour winds.

Aside from the motel, the storm caused remarkably little property damage. One house had its roof punctured by a falling tree.

Bobby Khan, one of two owners of the Cape Sands Inn, said getting hit by a tornado seemed so unlikely.

“To be honest with you, I was shocked,” he said. “Personally, I was shocked. Like, it’s our family business. And everything I see that is gone in the blink of an eye.”

He said he had to keep the entire motel shut down until this June. Now, two of the three wings are open, but the third — the one that lost its roof — is still inoperable. And he’s waiting for insurance money.

Last week, two men were working on the overhang in front of the second-floor rooms.

Back in Harwich, DPW director Hooper said he was amazed that tornadoes could come through Cape Cod in July and not injure anyone. The brush pile from tree cleanup in Harwich alone reached 50,000 yards in two weeks — five times the amount the town usually generates in a year.

Governor Baker came for a tour, and more than 300 sources of help stepped up, including the National Guard and crews from neighboring towns.

“It was just so many people, communities, towns, state agencies showing up, and the generosity of them to do so under very tough conditions,” he said.

He said it was controlled chaos, but in the end, many hands picked up the debris — and uplifted the Cape — in just two weeks.