Updated 1:15 pm
Smartphones blared with a shrill alarm at about 12:30 am Thursday morning (some report getting one as early as 11:30 pm Wednesday) jolting Islanders awake. Dukes County was under a tornado warning, and folks were urged to immediately seek shelter in basements, if possible. The warning was extended once until 2 am, but was actually called off at about 1:45 am, though a watch remained in effect until daylight.
During the height of the warning, many Islanders were awake and tuned in. Worried Vineyarders took to social media, where on the community Facebook page Islanders Talk they found Peter Neilley, a full-time Chilmark resident and the head of forecasting sciences for the Weather Co., parent company of the Weather Channel and weather.com. His message: The warnings are nothing to ignore.
“The threat is legitimate,” Neilley wrote to those awakened by the National Weather Service warnings. “There have been at least three events in the past 30 minutes. A waterspout between Gay Head and Gosnold around 11:55, a possible (unconfirmed) brief tornado near Falmouth at 12:15 am, and a third waterspout around 12:20 near Nomans heading toward Squibnocket or Lucy Vincent.”
His comments matched some of the live reporting being done by meteorologists on Boston TV.
During a conversation with The Times later Thursday morning, Neilley said he was monitoring Doppler radar, which showed conditions ripe for waterspouts, which become tornadoes over land. He said it’s likely the waterspouts weakened because there were no reports of tornado damage on the Island, but there could be downed trees in areas like the State Forest that went undetected.
“A waterspout and a tornado are fundamentally the same phenomenon,” he said. “When it’s over water, it’s a waterspout, but when it’s over land, it suddenly changes names to a tornado. Typically, waterspouts are weaker than tornadoes because there’s not, sort of, the friction of the land.”
He said the radar showed clear signatures of what a meteorologist knows to look for. “In the play-by-play I was giving last night, I was looking at the raw radar data and seeing these signatures of these storms move in generally Southwest of the Island.”
He pointed out that radar reads the wind 1,000 feet above the ground. “So the signature you see is what’s going on above you; you can’t use that to be definitive about what’s going on on the ground … If it still has its signature, but is not on the ground, that’s what we call a funnel cloud.”
Despite the ominous talk on TV while the warning was in effect, particularly for Edgartown, Police Chief Bruce McNamee reported no significant damage. “A few limbs down was all,” he wrote in a text message.
Chilmark harbormaster Ryan Rossi said one boat capsized on its mooring in Menemsha Harbor. The boat was secured, and the owner has been notified. “We’re going to contact commercial salvage, but I highly doubt they’ll come over from Falmouth today,” he said. Meanwhile, the vessel’s owner is reaching out to his insurance company, Rossi said.
Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker said there were a couple of boats that took on water, but were not in immediate danger of sinking. The boat owners have been notified, he said. On the Oak Bluffs side of Lagoon Pond a boat dragged anchor and was on the beach. That boat owner was waiting for Sea Tow to pull it off the beach, Crocker said.
The Times found the boat Family Tradition on the shore, its mooring still attached.
Only two ferry crossings were canceled, though the Steamship Authority did divert boats from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven for most of the day Thursday.
The storm dumped an average of 2.6 inches of rain on the Island, according to members of Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network, who collect data for the National Weather Service.
Neilley said the tornado warnings didn’t surprise him, given the power of Hurricane Ida, which left Louisiana in ruins, some New Jersey towns devastated by tornadoes, and New York City underwater.
“They are rare, absolutely, and the kind of event we saw last night is at best once a year and probably once every several years’ event,” Neilley said, remembering a confirmed waterspout that popped up three years ago. “We don’t see those things often, but then again, we don’t get inundated with storms like Ida very often either … If you had asked me 24 hours in advance did I expect we would get tornado warnings at 1 am, of course, I wouldn’t have said that.”
But as things unfolded in the New York–Philadelphia area late Wednesday, it became clearer that Ida was a threat.
“The Weather Service did put out a tornado watch late in the evening, which is a statement that the conditions are ripe for these things to occur,” Neilley said.