Hurricane-force winds kill one, topple hundreds of trees and knock out power for 170,000 residents

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) High winds cause extensive damage on the Capitol grounds in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

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Hurricane-force winds wreaked havoc across northern Utah on Tuesday, killing one resident, toppling hundreds of huge trees, closing schools and knocking out the power for more than 170,000 homes and businesses.

Gusts reaching at least 99 mph were recorded with the worst winds concentrated north of Salt Lake County, according to the National Weather Service. Area hospitals reported at least one death attributed to the storm — and it isn’t over yet, with heavy winds expected to last throughout the night and into early Wednesday.

Winds of up to 70 mph or more were expected to resume late Tuesday through early Wednesday morning before decreasing by mid- to late morning, the weather service reported.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, at a Tuesday news conference, urged residents to exercise caution and stay inside as much as possible as long as the wind advisory is active. “There will be a time” to help neighbors clean up the damage, Cox said, “Most of the cleanup can wait until tomorrow unless it is a dangerous situation."

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall declared a state of emergency, as did mayors in other cities.

“Our urban forester has remarked that these are tornado circumstances, but instead of it being in the path of a tornado it is everywhere throughout the city,” Mendenhall said at a news conference. “The destruction isn’t over.”

Cox said the state was evaluating whether a statewide emergency order was necessary, and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said leaders there were making the same calculations.

A spokesman for Utah-based health system Intermountain Healthcare confirmed late Tuesday that one resident had died from injuries sustained in the windstorm, but no additional details were available.

Roughly a dozen people had reported to emergency rooms over the course of the day with minor injuries related to the storm, Intermountain spokesman Jess Gomez said.

A spokeswoman for the University of Utah’s health system said one patient had been treated and released for injuries from flying debris and a few others received care for injuries from minor automobile accidents.

Meanwhile, schools in the Davis, Weber and Ogden districts closed due to unsafe travel conditions and power outages; nine schools across Weber are not expected to reopen again until Thursday. The Salt Lake City School District, which was supposed to start online classes Tuesday because of the pandemic, also canceled its first day because of power outages. University of Utah and Weber State University called off classes, too.

The U. stopped drive-up coronavirus testing.

Streets became a maze with felled trees blocking intersections, including one at 600 East and 100 South in Salt Lake City. Three trees toppled there near an apartment complex, crushing a Tesla parked on the street and leaving glass shattered on the asphalt.

Many of the trees came unrooted, pulling out massive chunks of earth and sidewalk with them. And burst pipes covered the nearby cement in water.

Georgann Jensen and her friend had been driving to pick up their kids from Upland Elementary School in Salt Lake City after the power went out. A massive pine crashed onto the road just barely behind their car. Neighbor Greg Newbold caught the near miss on video.

Jensen said she heard a loud creak and thought she felt something brush the back of the car. Then her friend stopped and shouted, “Turn around and look at what just happened.”

“It was pretty terrifying,” Jensen said. “I’m a little nervous driving around now.”

David Stroud and his son, Zak, had been taking pictures of the damage in their yard in the Avenues early Tuesday. Mostly a few limbs had broken off.

They stepped away to go back inside their house and 15 seconds later, Stroud said, the massive, 85-year-old tree they were looking at came down right where they had been standing.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Stroud said. “We had just been there. We could have been hit by it."

The tree took with it a streetlight and a power pole, leaving wires exposed.

That was at 7:30 a.m. Another tree in their neighbor’s yard burst through the fence between the houses shortly after that. Then a city’s water crew showed up about 10 a.m. when Stroud noticed that it smelled like fuel when he tried to turn his faucets on — but no water would come out.

“It just doesn’t seem real,” added Ronnie, Stroud’s youngest daughter. She was supposed to start online classes at West High, but those were canceled with the storm.

Their house, like many in the Avenues, is nearly 100 years old.

April Hogue, who lives nearby, saw even more damage. A giant pine crashed down on her home from her neighbor’s yard, hitting the roof and porch and causing the whole front of the house to sag forward.

Shingles were tossed off. The siding is torn. The rain gutters are crumpled. And a window was shattered.

“There’s potentially some structural damage on the porch," Hogue said. "It will be extensive repairs. But it’s not a tear down.”

Her friend had actually been outside when it happened. She had seen the fence swaying and tried to reinforce it. Then she heard a crack from the tree and ran.

The two women, along with a group of friends, grabbed chainsaws and started unburying the front door Tuesday morning.

Metal stop signs had been bent from the wind. And a mattress flew down 2nd Avenue with a big gust. By early afternoon, it also started snowing in some areas along the East Bench in Salt Lake City.

“It’s definitely been some wacky weather,” said Vanessa Wilson, who had a tree crash in front of her porch on 1100 East. “I kept hearing bangs and crashes throughout the night.”

Chris Peterson, too, the Democrat running in Utah’s gubernatorial race, had a massive 100-year-old sycamore fall in his yard, damaging the sidewalk. Tera Peterson, the candidate’s wife, said, “I’m nervous. This could go all day.”

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) Damage is seen after a wind storm affects the Salt Lake City area Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

According to the National Weather Service, the strong winds will "ramp back up” between Salt Lake City and Ogden on Tuesday night and continue into Wednesday morning.

Temperatures — which are expected to top out in the mid-50s on Tuesday — will rise into the low 60s on Wednesday as the low pressure slowly pin-wheels north along the Utah-Colorado border.

The National Weather Service clocked winds of 99 mph at Park Lane on U.S. Highway 89, with gusts of 97 mph in Farmington and at Logan Peak, 89 mph at the University of Utah’s Browning Building, and 84 mph at Hill Air Force Base.

“We’ve heard some reports of 100+ mph winds but we do not have access to that data,” NWS meteorologists said on Twitter.

Winds 74 mph and faster are classified as “hurricane-force,” according to the National Hurricane Center.

Rocky Mountain Power said, too, that it was working to restore electricity to those still without service, which included up to 140,000 customers in Utah as of late Tuesday, due to more than 2,874 separate outages, the company said. Those outages went as far south as Utah County and as far north as Idaho, where another 3,000 were without power. Additionally, 10,000 in Wyoming were affected.

The company said that residents should be prepared for “prolonged power outages," noting that “some restoration efforts could be delayed until the gusts subside to ensure safety.”

Spencer Hall, a spokesman with Rocky Mountain Power, said later in the day that some outages could last as long as three days. Those would likely be in the hardest-hit areas along the mountain bench in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties.

Salt Lake County set up four warming centers for people who had lost power during this unseasonably cold weather, as well as for people experiencing homelessness. Those centers, which will open Tuesday night and be operated by the American Red Cross, are located at:

  • Northwest Recreation Center, 125 West Clark Avenue in Salt Lake City

  • LDS Church - Emerson Ward, 808 East Roosevelt Avenue in Salt Lake City

  • Millcreek Community Center - 2266 East Evergreen Avenue in Millcreek

  • LDS Church - Stake Center, 3650 W. 440 South in West Valley City

The city announced Tuesday that it had opened the Sorenson Unity Center at 1383 South 900 West as an emergency shelter to keep people experiencing homelessness safe overnight, Mendenhall said. Cots and meals will be available there until 7 a.m. Wednesday with volunteer staff and she said volunteers will be dispatched to areas where people are camping to offer rides to shelter.

Residents are advised to tie down trampolines and outdoor furniture. And people and pets should also avoid getting near any downed power lines.

Semitruck travel has been restricted in Box Elder, Davis and Weber Counties because of the winds. According to the Utah Highway Patrol, several trucks have been blown over and trees and power lines blocked highways and interstates in those areas. U.S. 89 between Park Lane in Farmington and Oak Hills Drive in Layton has been closed because of downed power lines, according to the Utah Department of Transportation.

Cox said 45 semis overturned on Utah’s freeways and that several of the reported injuries as a result of the storm were from drivers involved in those accidents. Other injuries were from broken glass, including one person who he said was injured when a tree fell on the house.

The National Weather Service said strong crosswinds remained a possibility late Tuesday and early Wednesday along Interstate 15 in Davis, Weber and northern Salt Lake counties as well as on Highway 89 and Legacy Parkway.

Salt Lake City closed most of its parks and the city cemetery. Hundreds of trees, if not more than a thousand, are downed or damaged, Mendenhall said. Many more have likely been loosened and could topple tonight. City crews are prioritizing removal of debris that is blocking roads, storm drains and fire hydrants.

Wilson cautioned that residents with downed trees should not haul branches to the streets for pickup at this time and noted that the county landfill would not be charging for green waste starting Friday.

Salt Lake County Emergency Manager Clint Mecham said Property owners will be responsible for clearing their own debris.

Reporters Erin Alberty, Scott D. Pierce and Tony Semerad contributed to this article.