Seven-year-old Casey Penacho of Greenland is held up by her mother, Coleen, to shake Fred Thompson?s hand as he disembarks from his bus on arrival at the Scamman Farm in Stratham.
Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonquist
STRATHAM — Dozens of people dove under tables to protect themselves as a fierce thunderstorm toppled trees onto cars and mangled tents at the Seacoast Republican Women's annual chili fest yesterday.
The storm whipped through the Scamman farm shortly before Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson arrived for his first visit to the Seacoast since announcing earlier this week that he was joining the race.
"If there's any justice, in the paper tomorrow it's going to say Thompson's working up a storm," the former Tennessee senator and Hollywood star told the crowd of more than 200 people, some still covered with stains after bowls of chili flew through the air during the storm.
The fast-moving storm that hit just before 4:30 p.m. quickly stole the thunder for many of the politicians who came out to urge support for a host of Republican candidates.
Five vehicles, two belonging to New Hampshire state representatives, were damaged when large tree limbs broke and landed on them in a field at the front of the farm owned by Doug and Stella Scamman. Another vehicle was hit by a hay wagon that took off when the winds picked up.
Some who ran for cover said the torrential rains and strong winds struck suddenly.
Authorities said they were surprised that no one was injured in the storm.
Stratham police Sgt. David Pierce was directing traffic on Portsmouth Avenue at the farm when the storm hit.
"It was total chaos. The wind was phenomenal coming across here. I was scared and I really thought we were going to be dealing with some injuries here," said Pierce, who ran to his cruiser along with Officer Kevin O'Neil.
Pierce said a tree landed on a Jeep Cherokee as it drove along Portsmouth Avenue, but the vehicle managed to get out from under the tree and took off after the storm passed. Portsmouth Avenue was blocked off for a time as crews worked to clear tree limbs.
Jeff Doherty, 41, of Newfields, was sitting under a large tent getting ready to eat his chili when the winds began whipping.
"The next thing we knew chili bowls were flying in the air," Doherty said. Several men under the tent yelled for the women to get underneath the tables as the tent collapsed onto the crowd.
State Rep. Mary Griffin, 81, of Windham, was among those covered with chili.
"The whole tent was coming down. The wind just came through and took everything off the table," she said.
Exeter state Rep. Marshall "Lee" Quandt, who remembers last year's devastating hailstorm that hit Exeter, estimated that the winds were gusting up to 60 mph.
"This was as bad as I've seen it," he said.
Michael Castaldo, 42, of Dover, had just stuck a political sign in the ground when the winds picked up and he jumped into his Mercedes.
"It was like Dorothy 'we're not in Kansas anymore,'€‰" he said. "The car was actually shaking."
Stratham firefighters arrived minutes after the storm to help as authorities assessed the damage and checked for injuries.
As crews worked to remove the trees, organizers of the chili fest tried to get the event back on track.
The tent that had collapsed on the crowd was hoisted back up, the tables repositioned, and bowls of chili returned.
Leann Moccia, president of the Seacoast Republican Women, said about 275 people attended, a smaller turnout than expected. She said the weather likely kept some people away.
Despite the storm, political heavyweights such as Sen. John E. Sununu, his father, former Gov. John Sununu, Sen. Judd Gregg and former U.S. Rep. Jeb Bradley were on hand for the event.
But attention quickly turned to Thompson when his large campaign bus pulled into the Scamman yard.
With cameras flashing, the newly announced presidential hopeful quickly took to the podium to deliver his message of conservatism.
Thompson also urged support for the military and stressed the importance of unity in America, especially in time of war.
"We face a global enemy that plays by no rules and has no conscience. They are relentless," said Thompson.
"Iraq is a part of the problem, but it is not the totality of the problem. The world watches now as our will is tested, as our determination is tested, to see how we're going to react."
To win the war in Iraq, Thompson said Americans must show the rest of the world that the nation is united in its fight.
Thompson also voiced concerns about open borders and the threat posed by terrorists who can easily slip into the country.