Two days of torrential rains, high winds and flash flooding ended mercifully Monday night, but only after a violent storm left two men dead and forced the evacuation of a hospital and hundreds of others across the region.
Nowhere was the aftermath worse than the small town of Gowanda, 30 miles south of Buffalo, where Cattaraugus Creek rose 5 feet in five minutes.
The storm's violent fingerprints could be found everywhere, from the 80-year-old man literally swept away in floodwaters to the 300 to 400 homes -- one out of every three in Gowanda -- that sustained physical damage.
"It was like a river flowing by the house, three, four feet deep," said Helen Reinhardt, who lives at South Chapel and Walnut streets, one of the hardest hit areas of Gowanda.
In nearby Allegany County, the National Weather Service confirmed a tornado touched down between New Hudson and Cuba for about 10 minutes Monday afternoon.
Even to the north, far away from the storm center, there were remnants of a fierce flood, most notably large sections of murky, brown floodwater mixing with the blue waters of Lake Erie. Four people also were successfully rescued Monday night after apparently attempting to kayak on a swollen Buffalo Creek in West Seneca.
Damage across the three-county region was severe enough that Gov. David A. Paterson declared a State Disaster Emergency for Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties by Monday afternoon.
The flooding in Gowanda was so quick Sunday that Thatcher and Grannis brooks, two Cattaraugus Creek tributaries, backed up. They eventually rose to 8 or 9 feet above flood stage and began backing up into the village at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday.
"It was very scary," said Gowanda Mayor Richard L. Klancer. "We evacuated people from 3 months old to 80. It's pretty sad."
Flooding was blamed for two deaths. Theodore E. Stitzel, 80, of Route 62, drowned late Sunday after wading out to check on a flooded bridge over Thatcher Brook.
"He got into the 3-foot rising floodwaters that swept him into a bridge abutment, and he drowned," said Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Capt. Robert Buchhardt.
Another man died Monday of an apparent heart attack after flooding prevented emergency crews from reaching him. His name was not immediately released.
Seven other people fared much better, thanks to a dramatic helicopter rescue in the Zoar Valley Monday morning.
After being stranded for six and a half hours in the raging floodwaters of Cattaraugus Creek, the seven campers were lifted to safety by Erie County Sheriff's Capt. Kevin Caffery in a sheriff's helicopter.
"They were hanging on to cars and trailers," said sheriff's spokeswoman Mary Murray.
The campers suffered from exposure but were expected to recover.
The storm also destroyed a mobile home park in Silver Creek and forced the evacuation of 50 patients and staff from Gowanda's Tri-County Memorial Hospital after the facility lost power at about 12:30 a.m. Monday.
"We lost all essential services, and we had about two feet of water on the ground floor," said Kendrick Bentham, site administrator at Lake Shore Health Care Center, Tri-County's sister facility.
Most of the patients, as well as hospital staff, were moved to Lake Shore, a process made more difficult because the roads were impassable.
"That was the biggest problem," Bentham said. "We couldn't get staff in to help, and we couldn't get people out."
Tri-County mainly hosts short- and long-term chemical dependency patients but also offers outpatient services, clinics and emergency medical care.
Bentham wasn't sure when they would be able to get back into the hospital because the building still had 18 inches of water Monday afternoon.
Longtime residents in Gowanda, Perrysburg and Versailles say they've never seen such severe flooding, and cleaning up after the storm will take weeks, maybe months.
"There was just so much rain, and it was so hard and so steady," said Gary Gabel, a meat cutter who lives outside Gowanda. "Everybody is just out with snow shovels shoveling up slop."
In Gowanda, state police were stationed at both ends of Routes 39 and 62, the main roads into the village, to keep out traffic during Monday's driving ban.
Bryon Ivett and Minnie Hansen say they can't remember ever seeing rain as hard, and they then told the story of how they learned about the flooding from one of their tenants.
The frantic call, Ivett said, came early Monday.
"He says, 'Bryon, you'll never believe it, the water just broke through the basement window,' " Ivett said. "Then it broke through the other side and just kept going."
The worst flooding appeared to be along Cattaraugus Creek, on Route 62, near the Cattaraugus-Erie county line.
It was there that people reported seeing cars swept away and homes flooded. One woman said she still doesn't know what happened to her 28-foot camper.
"The road was like a river," said Matt Harbison, of 212 Jamestown St., Gowanda. "People's furniture, couches, chairs, grills and one guy's tractor went floating by. By 2 a.m. Monday, I couldn't watch it anymore and went to bed because I didn't know what I was going to wake up to."
When he finally did wake up, Harbison said he looked out his back bedroom window and discovered the flood waters from nearby Thatcher Brook had devoured his entire backyard and his 16,000-gallon swimming pool.
"What I saw," he said, "was I didn't have a backyard."
Robert Dentice of Dayton said he literally felt a section of Stafford Road in Perrysburg give way as he and a friend pushed a swamped car through a "wall of water" Sunday.
"When we first went down the hill, there was only a little trickle of water going over the road at the base, then a three-foot wall of water came and we had to push the car from it," Dentice said.
"I'm up to my hips in water and I'm pushing the car and the road is crumbling away behind us," he said. "Every time I pushed, the road would sink under my feet."
Richard Thomas of Perrysburg said he was stunned by the sight of a culvert beneath the road at the base of the same hill. He said the road was washed out and a natural gas line ripped apart.
The crater where the patch of two-lane road was missing was approximately 175 feet long and 25 feet deep.
The flooding also wreaked havoc on water and sewer lines across the region.
"We are working on it," Cattaraugus County Administrator John Searles said of the numerous infrastructure repairs. "We're still assessing the situation and trying to get teams together to move on this. We're getting roads up and running as quickly as we can."
Just as the storm ended Monday, the entire region braced for the possibility of even more rain Monday night, a fear never realized.
There were some heavy rains in southern Niagara County and Genesee County between 5 and 6 p.m., but the worst of it, thankfully, headed east toward Rochester.
By the time the storm was gone, however, there was widespread property damage and power outages, and not just in Cattaraugus County.
Winds that reached gusts of 50 to 60 mph ripped down trees and wires across the region and, earlier in the day, Erie County Executive Chris Collins issued his own state of emergency targeted at towns and villages in the southern part of the county.
A state of emergency also was in effect for the Seneca Nation's Cattaraugus Territory and by Monday afternoon, Gov. Paterson had joined the chorus of elected officials calling for outside help.
"I have ordered state agencies to provide all assistance possible to protect our friends and neighbors in the affected counties," the governor said in a statement.
Paterson activated the state's Emergency Operations Center in Albany, where representatives of 10 agencies are working 12-hour shifts to assist officials in the three hard-hit counties. The declaration also will allow out-of-state repair crews to help restore electrical service.
Nearly 18,000 customers in various areas were still without power by late Monday afternoon.e-mail: email@example.com