More than a Breeze: New York City's Unusual Storm

Photographs and text by Judah S. Harris

I had gotten a seat on the Q64 bus that was now riding along Jewel Avenue in Queens taking people from the subway to the Kew Gardens Hills and Hillcrest neighborhoods.  Early evening on Thursday, this was the first part of rush hour, the bus was pretty packed, and we were only a few stops from where I’d get off. My intent was to pick up some items, and head home to eat dinner and edit a video I was working on.

At about 5:40 p.m., I saw things start to darken outside and noticed that some of the riders actually looked prepared for the rain. They had umbrellas and the right outerwear, and obviously had heard the same morning weather reports I had of thundershowers in the evening. I figured I’d be home by then, having conveniently calculated “evening” as the time that I’d be inside and not out.

Rain started to fall and then heavily, and looking outside, with the bus now at a standstill, I decided that there’s no way I could exit the bus. I’d ride to the end of the route – another 10 minutes – and then back on the return run to my intended stop, Main Street, hoping that the storm would have subsided by then, at least enough to duck into a restaurant. 

Things got very dark and the bus stayed put, I figured because of limited visibility. We closed the open windows and people seemed semi-awed by the heavy rain, which soon let up enough that I could look outside and see some downed branches on the sides of the road, large branches. I opened my window to look more clearly and we noticed that there were many branches that had been wrested loose from their trees. It all happened so quickly and it was an unusual site, a rapidly sequenced before-and-after that I’ve never experienced and that attested to the powers of nature that would excite the neighborhoods of this area and other parts of the city, while causing damage, dismay, and even injury, and necessitate a major cleanup effort at all levels, including by individuals who would need to resurrect their sukkahs, though many remained standing, unscathed. For many homes, electrical power, we’d learn, was out and would not be restored for a couple of days.

The bus continued slowly and the rain had stopped enough that I could get off at the right corner, but my plans now were to skip dinner, and quickly head home to get my camera and video camera, and then head back out to cover this. I wished good evening to the driver, calling him the “tornado bus driver,” (many on the bus thought it a tornado, as that was the only word we knew to explain what we’d witnessed) and asked him quickly what he’d seen from the front seat, he having the biggest windows. He looked a bit overwhelmed, and after getting off the bus it became clearer that something unusual had breezed through our town, but a breeze it wasn’t and seeing this tall tree on the east side of Main Street leaning fallen against the second story of a house quickly reinforced that point.

25 minutes later, with fresh batteries in my cameras, a flash, an umbrella in my back pocket (though it was no longer needed), and a bright yellow rain jacket, I was back on the streets and started to survey the area, get close to fallen trees, and trace the route this strange storm took, trying to fathom why some streets were basically calm and others recipients of an unwanted encounter. Some tall trees had been felled (later it would become clear that age and shallow root growth would compromise many trees in the path of the storm), cracking at lower points or higher ones, or becoming uprooted raising dirt and sidewalk cement slabs with them. A neighborhood man was helping drag branches from a blocked avenue and students from a local yeshiva directed me to an area that had crushed cars. Signs of lightning scar could be seen running some of the length of one tree on Main Street and a number of us were debating if it was in fact lightning or something else that scraped the tree trunk removing lines of bark (later online research confirmed that lightning is the only likely explanation). 

Bus service in many parts of the area, especially north and of us and on Jewel Avenue, had completely stopped shortly after the time of our Q64 run, with simply no ways to safely negotiate the many blocked roads. This left many commuters with no option but to walk from the train to their neighborhoods, maneuvering through branches and other debris, luckily finding grocery shops or the 7-Eleven on Main Street open to buy food and even generous neighbors and their kids doing their part to help, as I noticed at one makeshift water stand on Jewel Avenue. The two girls and an adult chaperon had set up a folding table and were offering “free water” to the trekkers who’d walked one-and-a-half miles from the same train station I’d gotten off at earlier and who might have another mile yet to their homes a neighborhood away.

On Jewel Avenue near 138th Street, a tall tree that had fallen across the road was now being chopped up by a two-person NYPD rescue team. (Jewel is a busy and essential thoroughfare, so this obstruction was a priority; cars were traveling and groups of pedestrians were walking home from the Forest Hills station, often along the edges of the road.) This big tree must have fallen at a spot a few blocks earlier than where our Q64 bus had been at the time of the storm, as we weren’t blocked by it; or it fell at a later point. The police team was working laboriously with power saws to unclog the street, and the taller of the officers, with the right biceps for the job, was sweating, taking breaks to drink water that was resting on the hood of the emergency vehicle, and even pouring it on his head to cool down. I underestimated the exertion involved. “There are only two teams for all of Queens,” he told me. Usually, these trained specialists are probably working on extricating people, but tonight the trees had trapped many, and with the help of neighborhood residents, who carried or pulled away the now smaller pieces of wood, Jewel Avenue was becoming passable.

The next day, sunshine abounded but sounds of the chain saws could be heard in the neighborhood, as occasional choppers flew overhead to survey the damage, probably also identifying trouble spots that needed to be cleared sooner than later. People were out and about, but twigs ruled the sidewalks, while branches lined the sides of most streets, and larger tree fall still blocked side roads (and some major ones) and dominated front lawns of a number of homes. Branches hung from wires and I was amused by one hanging on a phone or cable line on Vleigh Place that had been propped up by a ladder that was standing at an angle balanced on two if its legs, an ingenious attempt to keep the line aloft until the branch could be dealt with by those skilled enough to remove it.

Saturday morning, I headed out shortly after 7 a.m. to walk two miles to a Forest Hills synagogue for Yom Kippur morning services. Along my route, I got to see more of the damage and entering Forest Hills discovered how they too had been hit, even more severely in some ways than my neighborhood, with downed trees and occasional fallen or snared lines. I now imagined more clearly how the walkers from the subway station had struggled to make their way, in the dark of night, across blocked sidewalks and probably streets too.

Crossing Queens Boulevard, I met up with a 90-year-old man headed to the same synagogue. He was using a walking stick, so I slowed my pace and he told me about the services the night before. As we arrived at our destination, I noticed the synagogue’s seasonal metal sign with the large-size words “Reserve your High Holiday Seats Now,” hanging at ground level. Across the road a tremendous tree was blocking a street mid-block. Pedestrians walking past couldn’t help but take a look and some were taking photos on compact digital cameras or cell phones. I resisted the urge to walk down the street for a closer view. I’d seen fallen trees already and I’d see more on the way back. Also, services were starting in five minutes. I walked all this way and I wanted to be on time.  

I took a slightly different route back home, mid-afternoon. It was only a one-block difference, but a chance to survey what had transpired on another street. Trucks with hydraulic lifts were working on the roads and landscape and tree specialist companies had their vehicles with built-in wood chippers gobbling up branches, though I wondered how they dealt with the large pieces of trunk that had in many instances been sawed into manageable, but still hard to lift, pieces. This was not your normal landscaping or pruning job. Two traffic cops were manning an intersection where the lights were out – “No power,” an officer said – and a Con Ed worker explained that trees can knock down lines and cross wires, causing them to burn. “Smell that?” he asked. I did and saw the burned portions of electrical line. Most or maybe all of the residential buildings on both sides of the streets had been without electricity since Thursday evening and the utility worker explained that shifts were long, though they were trying to rotate people, and that 200 crews from other areas, including other states, had been deployed to get the city areas hit by the storm back to normal as soon as possible.

I progressed on my route and crossed Flushing Meadow Park on Jewel Avenue. A baseball game was in session on the large grassy area to my far left, and closer to me a soccer net was being tethered to the ground for use. A moderate distance away from the activity, but still within my field of view, individual fallen trees were lying horizontally on their sides, lone trees ripped completely from the ground, with possibly a few strands of root still clinging to something of the earth. These were the same trees I’d gazed at in the early morning, but now amidst the human activity and the ambient sounds of human chatter they reminded me in some ways of dinosaurs, fallen dinosaurs, an extinct race, big forgotten creatures now silenced, while the present civilization went about its way.

So what was this storm exactly? After a day of investigation, weather experts finally confirmed late Friday evening that the first word grabbed hold of by many – “tornado” - was indeed a correct one to use. Brooklyn had theirs and Queens got its own about 10 minutes later at approximately 5:42 p.m. in Flushing and Bayside, an EF1, with estimated maximum wind speeds of 100 mph (New Jersey also experienced a tornado in Ocean County).

But it was not a tornado that we witnessed while riding (at a standstill) the Q64 Bus, nor what brought down so many trees on our streets and in our neighborhood parks. “The damage in Kew Gardens Hills was the macroburst,” meteorologist Ross Dickman of the National Weather Service’s Suffolk County station told me, employing a word that most of us heard for the first time only in recent days. “The tornado itself was very narrow, only 75 to 100 yards wide, although both the Brooklyn and Queens tornadoes traveled several miles.”

Jewel Avenue approaching Main Street was only one mile from where the tornado had touched ground in a northern portion of Flushing Meadow Park close to the Long Island Expressway, but we were still outside its narrow path width. Our devastation resulted from the Middle Village-Forest Hills macroburst, straight-line winds as high as 125 mph that ripped branches and entire trees easily from the ground as it moved eastward. I had been on the bus during this time. It lasted six or seven minutes. Nothing shook, no funnel from a nearby tornado could be seen (we couldn’t see anything), and a little black dog named Toto, if he had been with us, probably wouldn’t have been so impressed. The rain was exceptionally heavy, but the aftermath, visible moments later, was what left us rather astonished.  

As I arrived back in Kew Gardens Hills Saturday afternoon, a biker, with his Nikon digital camera slung over his shoulder, told me that it reminded him of the 1987 storm in London with winds that blew down enormous amounts of trees, cut electricity, and snarled car and rail transportation. Originally from Britain, but living in the US, he was back in the UK visiting at the time. The “Great Storm” was on a Thursday into Friday evening in October of that year. That Monday, October 19th, was Black Monday, the day of the 1987 stock market crash. “It turned out to be a not so good weekend,” the biker said.

I hope five or ten years from now we’ll be able to look back at our weekend and say it “wasn’t so bad,” just a bit unusual and unexpected. And probably for most of us, a once, maybe twice in a lifetime event.

Judah S. Harris
is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer.
He photographs family celebrations and a wide range of corporate, organizational and editorial projects in the US, Israel and other countries. Judah's photography has appeared in museum exhibits, on the Op-Ed Pages of the NY Times, on the covers of more than 40 novels, and in advertising all over the world. His work can be seen in a frequent email newsletter that circulates to thousands of readers who appreciate the quality of photography and writing. To learn more about Judah S. Harris, visit

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