F3 Boonville Tornado on May 2, 1983 Caused $15 Million In Damage
The Boonville Tornado of May 2, 1983 was part of an outbreak in Michigan, Ohio, Southern Ontario, Pennsylvania and New York. The storms resulted in a total of five fatalities in New York and Ohio, with three occurring in the Empire State alone. Although no deaths occurred in Boonville, an estimated $15 million dollars worth of damage occurred and the village was considered the worst hit of 17 communities in 11 counties in New York.
The Boonville tornado was one of six F3 tornados throughout New York State with winds between 200 and 300 mph. An F4 tornado struck Reece’s Corners in Southern Ontario, causing no fatalities but over $25 Million (Canadian dollars) in damage while 3 others, a F0, F1 and F2, hit closer to Toronto as the front moved east. A total of 9 tornadoes were reported in Michigan, Ohio and New York with 3 others occurring just across the border and into Pennsylvania.
As the swift-moving cold front continued to move east the dark of night had fallen on the village of Boonville, punctuated by a growing electrical storm that lit up the sky and knock the power out shortly before the tornado struck around 10:30 p.m. The Watertown Daily Times reported on May 3, 1983–
The twister carried with it devastating winds estimated at 200 to 300 miles per hour when it tore a path through the village, sucking trees from the ground, shattering windows and pulling the siding and roofing from many homes. In all, authorities estimate more than 100 homes were damaged.
Erwin Park also was hit hard. Dozens of massive trees were strewn about the ground, ripped up by the roots and scattered among the playground equipment and tennis and basketball courts.
Perhaps the most dramatic and talked-about destruction occurred at the village police station, corner of Lansing Place and Academy Street, which was lifted off the ground by the winds and smashed, leaving behind only scattered debris and the cement foundation.
The Boonville tornado, later classified as an F3, had wind speeds in between 158 and 206 miles per hour with the diameter between 176 and 566 yards. Winds can be very unpredictable with regards to which areas receive little to no destruction vs. other nearby structures that were completely demolished.
The Boonville police department, for example, was picked up and thrown a distance said to have been two blocks and totally destroyed whereas the Sunset Nursing Home, right across from it on Academy Street, received little to no damage – something of a miracle with 79 residents inside at the time.
Next door neighbors to Sunset Nursing Home wasn’t as fortunate. Husband and wife Tom and Nanette Podkowka were three months into renovating at Lansing Place when the Boonville tornado hit. Mrs. Podkowka was sitting on her porch on Academy Street watching as the electrical storm build when her husband took their 2-year-old daughter up to bed. According to their account published in The Times —
“It started hailing and then the lights went out.” Mr. Podkowka said. “When I felt the force of the wind, I knew something was terribly wrong.”
As he grabbed his daughter and ran down the stairs, Nanette Podkowka could see the black cloud of swirling water.
Mr. Podkowka said the conversation between husband and wife, both 25, turned from fascination to fear.
“Tom, com here, look at this,” the wife said as she watched the twister.
“Quick, get into the cellar!” the husband yelled back.
The couple, with the young daughter gathered in Mr. Podkowka’s arms, ran to the cellar stairs.
“As soon as we got to the cellar door, the windows blew,” he said. “By the time I sat down on the top step, it was over.”
The Podkowkas were the only identified individuals to have witnessed the tornado, but when the power was knocked out, another individual, Rev. Ken Connors, said to have seen the 10:30 p.m. night sky in a color of olive green and knew danger was imminent.
The pressure from the tornado popped the windows and pulled everything off, including the roof which Mr. Podkowka stated they had no idea where it was.
On May 5th, Governor Mario M. Cuomo declared Boonville and other parts of Oneida County a disaster area, allowing for state agencies to mobilize and help clean up the damage. It also allowed the Department of Labor to issue unemployment checks immediately rather than making affected workers wait the typical two-week period. The Ethan Allan furniture plant was one of the hardest hit businesses and employed nearly 200 people at the time.
Tornados A Rarity In North Country
The May 3, 1983 Watertown Daily Times reported on the rarity of tornadoes in Northern New York, stating that only seven had been reported since 1823 when the first was recorded in Franklin County having entered from Canada and struck the village of East Constable before heading to Chateaugay.
The most deadly occurred in 1936 around Philadelphia that claimed the life of a 41-year-old woman confined to her bed with a heart ailment. Four buildings were demolished on the Evans Mills – Oxbow Road with another woman fracturing her back and two children hospitalized – one a seven-year-old from downstate visiting as part of the “Fresh Air Children” program.
Another tornado, which apparently never hit the ground, caused damage in Adams where it leveled a three-stall garage and tore the roof off a house in August of 1973.
In an undated report, a tornado that struck the outskirts of Watertown resulted in an estimated $10,000 worth of damage and took down trees and monuments in the Calvary Cemetery in Huntingtonville after overturning a truck on the Black River Road. The tornado cut across State Street, missing Thompson Park before its two-mile spree ended.
Other minor reports included a twister on Earl Street, near the Fairgrounds and another at Guffin’s Bay, neither resulting in any damage. 1936 saw minor damage when a tornado lasting less than a minute cut through Thompson Blvd.
In 1958, a Knowlsville Road farmer was picked up by a twister and thrown 30 feet into his dairy barn. Over a hundred years earlier, in 1845, the most devastating tornado to hit Northern New York was “The Great Windfall Of 1845” which cut a 200-mile course from Canada to Vermont.
Not cited in the article, but mentioned in Joel H. Monroe’s Through Eleven Decades of History, was the tornado of 1857—
There are those now living who remember the terrific tornado of 1857. It came up from the southeast and swept across upper Washington Street and the great park bordering Sterling mansion, thence down State Street, unroofing houses, uprooting trees and causing great damage all along its path. A man driving out State Street was blown from his wagon and killed while crossing over the bridge of the old canal. The hail stones, it is said, were as large as hens’ eggs.
Below: Raw footage showing damage from the May 2, 1983 Boonville, N.Y. F3 Tornado from WKTV Meteorologist Matt Lanza’s YouTube channel.