PORTLAND, Maine — The buzz of chain saws across parts of New England on Thursday signaled the start of a big cleanup after powerful storms that caused flash floods, knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses, and brought tornadoes to places rarely hit by their furor.
At the height of the storm Wednesday, 23,000 homes and businesses were in the dark in Maine. Another 20,000 customers lost electricity in Vermont. To the south, Connecticut Light & Power reported 55,000 power outages.
Gov. John Baldacci signed an emergency declaration to allow power crews from other states to come to Maine to help restore electricity and extend hours that crews may work.
By Thursday afternoon, Central Maine Power said its crews had restored service to 85 percent of those who lost power Wednesday night. The company aimed to have power restored to customers in Cumberland and York counties by Friday evening, according to a press release.
There were no reports of serious injuries.
In Maine, teams from the National Weather Service on Thursday confirmed that tornadoes touched down in Gorham, Limerick and Alfred. Funnel cloud sightings also were being investigated elsewhere in the state as well as New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut.
The storms dumped 3.45 inches of rain in a two-hour span in Cumberland and caused winds topping out at 64 mph in Cape Elizabeth, said Andy Pohl of the National Weather Service.
The heavy rain caused several roads to be shut down in St. George, Owls Head, Cushing and South Thomaston, according to documents from the Knox County Emergency Management Agency.
Route 73, the main road in South Thomaston, was closed for six hours.
After South Thomaston firefighters went to a structure fire Wednesday night, they dealt with damage from the storm until 1:30 p.m. Thursday, when Fire Chief Bryan Calderwood was able to go home for a nap, Calderwood said later Thursday afternoon.
“When the high tide came up and the water levels [rose] because of the rain we got, the tides came up and we had roads closed. It didn’t flood anyone’s house or anything, just flooded basements,” Calderwood said. “It was a lot of rain to deal with all at once.”
In the Rockland area, flashes of lightening and booms of thunder filled the sky as 4 inches of rain hit the city. But no serious damage was reported, according to Department of Public Works Director Greg Blackwell.
There were some minor washouts of road shoulders and some sewage backup, but all roads remained open, Blackwell said Thursday.
“Main Street looked like a river,” he said. “It came down in torrents.”
Such powerful thunderstorms are relatively rare in northern New England, cropping up only a couple of times a year, Pohl said. Rarer still in the region are tornadoes, he added.
Meteorologist John Cannon said Wednesday’s storms were caused when a strong jetstream met with volatile conditions, caused by moist air in the lower part of the atmosphere and dry air in the upper atmosphere.
In Gorham, which recorded a 54 mph wind gust, a 150-year-old barn containing prized cows was blown over, leaving a pair of stunned and bloodied bovines standing amid the debris. Two of the animals died.
“The barn was completely flattened,” said Kati King, whose parents live in the farmhouse across the street from what used to be their 40,000-square-foot barn.
The barn collapse demonstrated the storm’s power. The community sprang to action with chain saws to cut away debris to free trapped cows; some men climbed into the basement to rescue four calves, King said.
By the light of day, the scene looked like a barn raising in reverse, with scores of volunteers assisting in dismantling the barn and working to save undamaged timber.
Elsewhere, the weather service determined a microburst wiped out trees in New Hampshire’s Grafton County; hail and wind damage was reported in Carroll County, as well, said meteorologist John Cannon. Investigators also were looking into whether lightning started a house fire in the town of Meredith.
In Vermont, the storms ripped down a barn in Fairlee, allowing cattle to escape. Weather service officials say damage in Brookfield and Chelsea was caused by strong winds, not a tornado.
To the south, weather experts were surveying storm damage in Hartford and Litchfield counties in Connecticut. A tornado was confirmed in Bristol while experts concluded high winds, not a tornado, caused damage in the town of Westport, said meteorologist Kevin Lipton.
All four tornadoes, the three in Maine and one in Connecticut, were classified as EF1, with wind speeds of about 90 mph.
Weather experts typically investigate funnel cloud sightings. Tornadoes typically swirl in a counterclockwise direction, causing trees to fall in an atypical pattern compared with straight-wind damage in which trees fall in the same direction, Pohl said.
Bangor Daily News writer Heather Steeves contributed to this report.