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Thunderstorms an early preview of Elsa, forecast to lash Long Island overnight

Long Island officials detailed preparations ahead of Tropical Storm Elsa. Newsday’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware; Kendall Rodriguez; Howard Schnapp

This story was reported by John Asbury, Joan Gralla, Alfonso A. Castillo, Cecilia Dowd and Mark Harrington. It was written by Newsday Staff.

Elsa churned north on a path to Long Island, bringing the worst of whatever it has planned for the tristate by early Friday in the form of heavy rain and tropical force winds, forecasters said. The first tropical storm since Isaias hit last summer, Elsa will also be a test for PSEG Long Island, which faced withering criticism for it response to Isaias and made major system wide upgrades afterward.

"Since last August, we’ve made a lot of changes to our system and storm response plans," said PSEG Senior Director Michael Sullivan. "We feel we’re ready to respond to this storm event."

If the current forecast holds, Long Islanders could know when they wake up Friday morning whether PSEG Long Island was up to the task of keeping a lid on major storm damage or power outages.

The storm had weakened but forecasters said it was still powerful enough to deliver power outages, dangerous travel and flash flooding.

Thunderstorms rumbled through Long Island Thursday night ahead of Elsa's arrival, knocking power for thousands. Power outages had dipped to 852 by 11 p.m. after topping out earlier at 5,000, according to the PSEG outage map.

In Long Beach, firefighters investigating a possible lightning strike that hit a chimney of a home a few blocks north of the boardwalk, sending bricks crumbling. It did not catch fire or bring smoke to the rest of the house, officials said.

"We are working on restoring outages from this evening's thunderstorm safely and quickly as possible," said Ashley Trager Chauvin, a spokeswoman for PSEG Long Island. "We are expecting Elsa to hit later tonight and into tomorrow."

In Long Beach, firefighters investigated a possible lightning strike Thursday night that hit a chimney of a home a few blocks north of the boardwalk, sending bricks crumbling. It did not catch fire or bring smoke to the rest of the house, officials said.

The tropical storm was expected to accelerate as it headed northeast toward the region's coast overnight and into Friday morning. Just before 11:30 p.m., the storm had passed over Ocean County in southern New Jersey.

Western Long Island will see the heaviest rain, about 2 to 4 inches, with most of it falling from late Thursday night through Friday afternoon.

Sustained winds will peak during the same period, potentially reaching tropical force speed of more than 45 mph in eastern Suffolk County, forecasters said, with the rest of Long Island seeing lower gusts.

"A brief period of south to southeast winds of 35 to 40 mph with gusts to 55 mph are likely for portions of Long Island … late tonight into Friday morning. Winds will switch to the NW in the wake of Elsa," the National Weather Service said in an 8 p.m. briefing.

The weather service also expanded its flood watch to all of Suffolk.

PSEG crews were trimming 2,400 miles of trees away from wires Thursday, Sullivan said, adding that 250 tree-trimming crews are responding to the storm.

The number of off-Island workers is less than half of what PSEG had secured in the early days of Tropical Storm Isaias, when it requested some 2,500 off-island workers in advance of the storm.

PSEG had predicted Isaias would affect 200,000 to 400,000 customers. In the end more than 535,000 customers saw more than 645,000 outages, the company subsequently reported, amid failed communications and computer operations.

Elsa will also make for dangerous travel.

"It's going to be difficult driving. You’re going to have very high winds, very intense rainfall, so visibility is going to be very difficult," said Mark William Wysocki, senior lecturer, Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, who is a climatologist who works with the state.

LIRR spokesman Andrei Berman said the railroad had begun its storm preparation efforts, including by staffing additional communication line crews in Babylon and Ronkonkoma, extra plumbing workers in Bethpage and at its rail yard at Morris Park, Queens, and by having additional personnel available to remove fallen trees and address potential electrical issues.

Meteorologist Bill Korbel said Tropical Storm Elsa is expected to be much less powerful than Isaias.

The storm should bring much less damage than Isaias, which started as a stronger hurricane and wind gusts topping 70 mph.

"It’s very early in the season for a tropical storm. It’s just barely a tropical storm, but still considered troublesome," Korbel said. "This should have much less damage and is a fast-moving smaller storm with fewer winds."

The winds are expected to shift as the pinwheeling Elsa hovers over the region.

"It’s really going to be interesting," Wysocki said. "Certain parts of the island will have very calm conditions, while the western and eastern parts are going to get hammered as the eye moves across the island," he said.

High tides on Friday morning and night are when at-risk coastal communities may experience minor coastal flooding of a foot or less.

Nassau County officials are preparing for storm surge and high tides that could lead to flooding and power outages along the South Shore.

Speaking in Freeport, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said, "It’s really the low-lying South Shore communities slated to get hit with storm surge and wind and high tide tonight and tomorrow. That’s why it’s so important to keep our drainage clear and how we take that seriously. We’re really concerned about the South Shore."

She said the county will inspect any debris blocking the county’s 1,000 groundwater recharge basins and 3,720 stormwater outfalls.

Freeport Mayor Robert T. Kennedy recalled how nine years ago, the Nautical Mile was under seven feet of water after Superstorm Sandy.

He said the village has taken several measures to stem flooding including adding check valves and pumpson storm drains to redirect flood water into the bay.

"I’m cautiously optimistic we won’t have any flooding or problems tomorrow," Kennedy said.

Hempstead Town officials have been cleaning storm drains and will deploy 200 payloaders, street sweepers and trucks to prepare for and respond to the storm.

"When residents have a problem, they can call the town and we will clear branches in roadways," Supervisor Donald Clavin said. He said the town can’t touch downed wires but will clear any town roads.

"We will always err on the side of caution," Clavin said. "Last August, I don’t think people were taking it seriously and look at the end results — there were a lot of people without power. We’ll be prepared for that and I think PSEG is taking it seriously."

In Suffolk, County Executive Steve Bellone put out a statement saying, "Long Island is no stranger to tropical storms and extreme weather, and as we prepare for the arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa, we are urging our residents to stay alert and plan ahead. Please stay alert, secure any loose objects or bring them inside and as always, watch out for flooded roads. The Suffolk County Department of Public Works is on standby and ready to clear all county roads as necessary."

Southold Highway Superintendent Vincent Orlando said crews were prepping for the storm Thursday, checking chain saw blades and fueling payloaders to remove any downed trees Friday morning.

"Payloaders and chain saws are the main components we need to move any trees that fall down," he said.

He said he was watching the ever-changing forecast. He noted this was one of the earliest major storms he’s encountered, which could reach havoc on trees with new growth and heavy leaves on branches.

"We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. Every hour the weather changes and how close it’s coming," Orlando said.

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the town was expecting to have some coastal flooding and erosion but thought recent shoreline protection projects would minimize effects.

"It’s not a nor’easter, it’s more like a southeaster. It’s hard to anticipate the erosive effects of the storm," Schneiderman said. "Most of our beaches are in decent shape. It’s not like the days where a beach was almost washed away. We’re in better shape today to face this type of storm than in the past."

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