A barrage of monsoon microbursts devastated Queen Creek and northern Pinal County on Friday night, snapping 200 power poles like twigs, uprooting hundreds of trees, tearing roofs off homes and impaling livestock with airborne debris.
About 3,000 residents were expected to remain without power today, primarily in the Johnson Ranch area southeast of Queen Creek, Salt River Project spokesman Jeff Lane said on Saturday. The storm initially left about 5,000 residents without power and caused several roads and a railway to be closed off.
Another storm blew into the East Valley at 7p.m. Saturday, bringing heavy rains, intense lightning, strong winds and blowing dust, according to National Weather Service officials in Phoenix. But the storm did not parallel the destructive punch of Friday night's microbursts.
Weather officials are forecasting a 30 percent chance of rain for today, with a high of 102 degrees.
A massive cleanup and community outreach effort began Saturday in Queen Creek to clear roads and begin repairs on the ravaged town. Town officials on Saturday said they weren't sure yet what it would cost to fix the damage.
Town Manager Cynthia Seelhammer said the most severe damage was concentrated in downtown, near Ellsworth and Ocotillo roads. Hundreds of mature trees were blown over, she said, some falling on homes and into streets. Other damage included roof shingles strewn across yards and roadways, shattered windows, metal irrigation sprinklers twisted into pretzels and block walls knocked over.
About 20 town employees and volunteers went door-to-door offering assistance, and SRP representatives doled out free ice to help residents whose air conditioners had no power.
Doug Ashton, 46, said the storm ripped through his neighborhood about 9:45 p.m., destroying barns, flipping horse trailers and littering back yards with bales of hay weighing 125 pounds each. The wind, he said, was so powerful that it turned tin, metal and wood into lethal pieces of "shrapnel" that skewered several horses in his neighborhood, near 222nd Street and Cloud Road.
"This is the first time I ever told my wife to get away from the door," Ashton said, describing how the entrance to their home shook violently when the storm hit.
Linda Belkoff, 54, said she was shocked to find the huge, 26-year-old tree in her front yard uprooted and laid out across the lawn.
"It took out my fence, my neighbor's fence and the windshield of my Dodge (truck)," she said.
The mayhem began when two storms collided from the south and east to create a "multicellular storm," in which several warm pockets of moisture rose as high as 55,000 feet, cooled in the atmosphere and then bombarded the ground with winds up to 67 mph and more than an inch of rain, National Weather Service meteorologist Hector Vasquez said.
"It just splatters like an egg when you drop it from a building," Vasquez said of the microbursts, which began about 9:40 p.m. and lasted just under an hour.
Some residents said the winds seemed even faster, and many were certain their homes had been hit by a tornado, describing a deafening roar that resembled a freight train.
Gov. Janet Napolitano said the state Emergency Operations Center in east Phoenix was monitoring the storm's aftermath. Napolitano already had opened the center a day earlier to track Valley gas supplies.
But neither the town nor Maricopa County had declared an emergency, and the state wasn't taking any action yet, officials said.
Gary Moss, owner of the Queen Creek Café and Sports Lounge, said the storm damaged about a third of his roof, blowing off shingles and exposing the plywood underneath.
"We're OK, as long as it doesn't rain ," he said.
Despite the storm damage, business was booming as people who lost power to their homes looked for places to eat and escape the heat. Moss guessed that business was up nearly 30 percent from a normal Saturday afternoon because people couldn't cook at home, and the café's air conditioner was still running.
Volunteers passed out food and ice Saturday morning at the Gilbert San Tan Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 20145 E. Chandler Heights Road. By noon, power had returned to most Queen Creek homes, but residents of Johnson Ranch were not so lucky.
Johnson Ranch residents Sean Kelly, 35, and his 18-month-old daughter, Sarah, drove around Queen Creek on Saturday because "It's getting too hot in the house without air conditioning."
Kelly said many of his neighbors had escaped to cooler locales, but that the community planned to close down its streets for a block party later in the evening.
Residents trying to leave town had to navigate around congestion and impassable areas where power lines lay draped across the road. Even a train had to wait for power cables to be cleared while cars and trucks collected behind the closed railway crossing gates at Power and Rittenhouse roads.
Although the storm lasted less than an hour, some residents said it was one of the most shocking experiences they've been through in years.
"I was shook up, and I don't get shook up over things," Belkoff said. "I stayed in the bathroom with my dog, who was already in the bathtub."
Tribune writers Marie Gelinas, Tracy Kurtinitis and Le Templar contributed to this report.