By Erica Solvig and Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A storm packing tornado-strength winds ripped through Warren County in less than an hour early Saturday morning, but its effects will be felt for months.
No deaths or injuries were reported. But the 80-to 100-mph winds, with isolated gusts over 100 mph, caused extensive damage.
Roofs and siding were ripped from homes, while garages and sheds were torn from their foundations, trees and power lines were downed and a landmark was obliterated - the Kings Island sign that had been a fixture at the Mason amusement park along Interstate 71 since it opened 31 years ago.
More than 32,000 homes were left powerless in the storm's wake shortly after 1:30 a.m. By Saturday evening, however, Cinergy crews had restored power to all customers.
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, said the damage was caused by "straight line winds," rather than a tornado. Straight line winds occur when upper-level winds collapse and air rushes to the ground, then fans out in all directions, producing powerful gusts in isolated areas.
The area hardest hit was Warren County, especially Deerfield Township, South Lebanon and Mason.
Deerfield Township estimated damage at $580,000 - with $100,000 of that to the Kings Junior High School building.
In addition to the school, some 36 homes in Kings Mills suffered roof damage.
"One of the more priceless and intangible losses were many of the beautiful trees in Kings Mills - most of them upwards of 100 years old - were splintered like toothpicks," said Deerfield Township Fire Chief Bill Kramer.
"No amount of money can replace them, and that's a real loss for the community."
In Mason, the Group Health Associates building on Mason-Montgomery Road was nearly sliced in half, exposing installation and piping and scattering brick and other debris across the parking lot. Winds also ripped a hole in the roof, and heavy rains soaked much of the interior.
The medical office's lab, restroom and pharmacy were hardest hit.
"There's a lot of flooding damage," said Patrick Tellez, the company's CEO. "It will probably be months before we can reopen."
Until then, patients will be referred to one of GHA's seven other Greater Cincinnati locations. The company hopes to use another facility in the area temporarily until the office is repaired.
Although a dollar estimate has not been determined, Union Township/South Lebanon Fire Capt. Don Fugate said more than 50 homes had minor damage, 20 homes were moderately damaged and five homes were wrecked so badly that the families will have to live elsewhere until repairs are made.
The Greater Cincinnati chapter of the American Red Cross helped those people, and about 45 others by coordinating relief efforts. In addition, Red Cross volunteers served more than 400 meals Saturday to relief workers and residents, according to team leader George Long.
A handful of businesses in South Lebanon also suffered minor damage.
"But there were no injuries to civilians, and there were no injuries to our firefighters - so we all got pretty lucky," Fugate said.
Mable Hardy was among the fortunate in South Lebanon. A downed tree came within inches of the 80-year-old woman's home on Mary Ellen Street.
"It never broke glass," said Hardy, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1948. "We've had some pretty bad storms, but I'd say this is the worst."
Fire crews were out in Kings Mills as well, moving trees and assisting residents such as Jack and Shirley Martin, whose garage caved in about 2 a.m. It had to be reinforced so the couple could move an award-winning 1930 Model A Ford. Jack Martin spent three years restoring the car, which escaped damage.
"The roof came within 5 inches of it," Shirley Martin said.
Emergency crews from across Warren County rerouted traffic to avoid downed power lines and debris-covered streets. In some cases, streets were restricted to residents.
Mike Meenach used his chain saw to cut up large branches on the street before piling them up waist high at the curb. His South Lebanon home suffered minor damage.
"I don't know if they're calling this a tornado or not - but, man, it was strong," said the 38-year-old father of seven.
On Monday, the Deerfield Township Road Department will remove smaller limbs and other storm debris that residents take to the curb.
"We're just thankful to God that no one was injured and that our crews have been able to clear much of the debris in such a short time," said Bill Morand, township trustee president. "We'll do our best to get everything cleaned up as quickly as possible."
Kings Island spokesman Jeffrey Siebert said the park plans to replace the downed 50-foot marquee with one that will be "bigger and better."
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