Connecticut Tornado of 1989
Yankee Classic: July 1990
The dogs knew first. Ivan and Merle, Charles and Mable Besozzi’s two big, black English retrievers, had been restless all the day of July 10, 1989. “The dogs never settled down,” Mrs. Besozzi said, “and they’re very gentle and very smart. They sensed something.” By late afternoon Ivan and Merle were pacing around the old white-clapboard farmhouse in Cornwall, Connecticut, and Mable was having a hard time keeping them calm.
Radio reports warned of severe thunderstorms. Charles went to a window of the living room and looked out over the broad slopes of towering evergreens and a gentle, sunlit meadow. At the far end, in the rolling wooded hills where Route 7 turns and twists, was a dark and brutish cloud unlike any storm he had ever seen, and it was bearing down on the old village.
One of the dogs whimpered softly; Mrs. Besozzi talked to them. Her husband turned to her and said flatly, “I think we’re in for a helluva thunderstorm.”
This was a tornado, just one of several that were ripping through western Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts, New York, and Long Island, and Connecticut was taking the worst of it.
Telephone and power lines to more than 75,000 homes and businesses were going down fast. The tornadoes damaged countless homes and businesses, destroyed others, and uprooted majestic trees that had glorified local communities for decades. It would take days to understand the scale of the havoc.
Twelve-year-old Jennifer Bike of Stratford was killed when a tree limb crushed the tent she and three other Girl Scouts were sleeping in at Black Rock State Park on the Thomaston-Watertown line. Angelo Antico, 69, collapsed in his home in Watertown moments after the storms and died of cardiac arrest. Dozens of injuries were reported. Within 48 hours big sections of New Haven and scenic Litchfield Counties would be declared disaster areas. Damage estimates would reach $125 million.
Stand on a hill anywhere around Cornwall, even now, a year later, and the sound of a chain saw catches on the wind; the loggers are still busy. Cordwood has been free for the asking all year long, and the lumbermen say that good wood has been so cheap that it’s barely paid for the trucking. They’ve taken millions of board feet out of this one town alone, much of it more than two feet wide. Some has been wreckage from the historic 42-acre Cathedral Pines- 80-,100-, 150-foot-tall white pines and hemlocks dating back to the late 1700s, one of the largest stands in New England, snapped off like so many brittle matchsticks.
Buyers from big international lumber companies combed the hillsides for veneer logs of oak, writing checks as they went. Along Valley Road, just below the Besozzis’ house, huge logs lay trimmed and stacked like firewood; none of it was from their property. Besozzi was one of the lucky ones, though standing there at his living room window, defiantly watching the world come apart last July, he wasn’t sure he would be.
“Too fast,” he said with a shake of his head. “It was all happening too damned fast. Guy asked me later what color was it. ‘What color?’ I says. ‘I don’t know. Just dark, is all. Real dark.’ The thing was, right here it didn’t rain at all, and the sun stayed out the whole time.”
Over in Bantam, Donna Deering looked out the window of her house on Cathole Road, stared into sudden darkness, and heard the wind roar so loud she couldn’t think, except to grab her year-old son Charles and back off. As she did, a 25-year-old oak snapped in two, and the top of it crashed onto the porch, a scant few inches away from the window.
“I prayed,” she said. “I prayed that we’d be all right, and we were.”
Moments later the heart of town lay in ruin.
At their 270-acre farm off East Cornwall Road, just over the town line in Goshen, Steve Kubish, his sister Mary, and their hired man, Dave Sterling, went indoors when the hard rain fell and thunder started to roll.
“It was extremely dark,” he said, “and the thunder never stopped, just kept on loud and real steady-like. The wind blew the glass right out of some of the windows. None of us was hurt, but things in the house started blowing around pretty good.