HAMPTON, N.H. -- It seemed to take only a matter of moments. A roaring blaze, fueled by hurricane-like winds blowing off the coast of this seaside community, ripped through a decades-old wood-framed hotel overnight, and danced from building to building, eventually consuming a whole block on a touristy Hampton Beach walkway.
The lashing winds brought damage and left hundreds of thousands without power across New Hampshire, prompting Governor John Lynch to declare a state of emergency today.
Outages have most affected the coast and central and southern areas in the state, said Katya Brennan, deputy public information officer of the New Hampshire department of safety, division of homeland security and emergency management.
“We have about 330,000 power outages, and we have a lot of road debris, trees down,” Brennan said. “Right now we’re just working on helping the citizens. Trying to restore power for public safety is the main concern
In Hampton, five buildings were reduced to rubble, and a rising mist of ash mixed with spray from the Atlantic Ocean to produce a foul odor today that let everyone know where the disaster occurred.
Officials were still investigating the cause of the fire, but determined it had started just after midnight at the Surf Hotel, a wooden-framed structure with 22 units that was built in 1910. An arcade, Family Fun, and a gift shop, Mrs. Mitchell’s, a staple of the walkway, were also destroyed, as well as smaller candy and tourist shops.
Authorities estimated the blaze caused millions of dollars in damages on the coveted beachfront property.
“It’s just sad,” said Tom Gregg, a 47-year-old whose family lives on Nudd Street, a block from the fire, and whose siblings worked at the arcade that was located on the block and shopped at the gift store next door.
“Three generations we’ve been coming here, and it’s all gone,” he said. “So sad.”
Firefighters were hampered by an overnight storm with hurricane-like winds and pouring rain. City officials reported damages throughout the town. Streets were drowned by coastal flooding and downed trees and wires. Parking lots were turned into small streams.
At least one house had a tree fall through it, a field has at least towering trees that toppled over, and a house sitting on a peninsula near a waterfront was surrounded by water.
Fire Captain David Lang said town firefighters, already stretched because of a shortage in staffing Thursday night, suddenly became overwhelmed by fire alarms and reports of roofs ripped from their structures.
At 11 p.m. Thursday, firefighters worked to douse a fire in a basement home on Winnacunnet Road. An hour later, they were forced to leave their equipment there to tend to the hotel fire, which began with the wind.
“While they were working, the wind began to work harder, faster,” he said. “It was blowing right at the throat of the building.”
Lang said that firefighters here sought mutual aid assistance from surrounding communities, but were turned down because those communities were facing their own problems. To help in the hotel blaze, firefighters came from as far as Maine and Massachusetts. A special task force from the Lakes Region was activated, and eventually more than 125 firefighters responded to the beachfront.
This afternoon, they were replaced by locals who came to view the devastation. Lines to get to the area were so long it seemed like a beach day.
On the beat
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