By STEPHANIE REITZ, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ The state mobilized National Guard troops Friday and the governor urged residents to finish storm preparations as Hurricane Irene threatened to become the first hurricane to make a direct hit on the state in 20 years.
The storm was forecast to make landfall in New England on Sunday, although the first bands of rain could lash the region beginning Saturday. Officials warned it was likely to cause prolonged power outages and flooding in low-lying areas along the shoreline.
“This is perhaps the most serious climate event in state history since 1938,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, making reference to that year’s unnamed hurricane that brought 17-foot storm surges and caused 600 deaths.
The forecasts as of Friday morning placed the storm’s track through central parts of Connecticut, then north into central Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service. Irene could nudge as far west as western Long Island and western Connecticut, or as far east as Rhode Island.
“We are looking at New England getting a direct hit. That is certain — but whether it’s Connecticut or Rhode Island is not quite certain yet,” Glenn Field, a meteorologist at the weather service in Taunton, Mass., said Friday morning.
“The track forecast is becoming more and more certain with time, but a small deviation in the track can mean the difference between one state and the next” taking a direct hit, he said.
The storm could bring steady winds of 50 mph and higher even as far north as Hartford and Springfield, Mass., with gusts even higher, he said, and heavy rain and flooding throughout the region.
Malloy, who declared a state of emergency Thursday in advance of the storm, urged anyone living in areas that have flooded in the past to seek shelter elsewhere. He said the state was drawing up plans to evacuate low-lying urban areas from Greenwich to New Haven if needed. He said there also were plans to close both the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Highways over concerns for flooding and fallen trees.
State parks were set to close at sunset Saturday, and utility companies said they already had placed workers on standby in anticipation of power outages and downed lines in the storm’s wake.
The Connecticut National Guard also sent advance notice to 200 soldiers and airmen to report for storm duty Sunday morning, and expected that 500 more could be called out by Monday, spokesman Col. John Whitford said Friday. The Guard was also preparing chain saws and other equipment, and looking into positioning vehicles on the shoreline ahead of the storm.
“We’ll be doing missions that could range from debris clearance, evacuations, high water rescues, those type of things,” Whitford said.
Central Connecticut State University announced it was canceling Monday’s classes in advance, and officials at the University of Connecticut changed the weekend move-in schedule for returning students in hopes of keeping students safe and off the roads Sunday. UConn classes were still set to begin Monday.
Connecticut College in New London also delayed its new students’ arrival dates, postponed the start of the new school year and urged those already on campus to leave before 5 p.m. Saturday if possible.
Many of the 42 local school districts in Connecticut that are scheduled to start the new school year Monday also were making backup plans in case buildings or buses sustain damage.
Dozens of school districts were still on track to start their 2011 school year Monday, including Bridgeport, New Britain and Waterbury. Mark Linabury, the spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that as of Friday morning, Montville was the only local district that had notified them that it was pushing back the start date.
Connecticut has not been hit by a hurricane since Bob roared across southeast New England in 1991, causing six deaths in Connecticut and about $680 million in damage in the region.
Although Irene’s exact path remained a question mark on Friday, many residents and others along Connecticut’s shoreline were taking no chances.
Mystic Seaport announced plans to close Saturday and Sunday to prepare the museum’s buildings, artifacts and its historic 1841 whale ship Charles W. Morgan for the storm. That ship already is fastened into a special cradle in the shipyard as part of a restoration project, and museum officials say it’s well above the high-tide mark.
At the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in nearby New London, officials removed all their small training and sailing vessels from the Thames River and were weighing Friday whether to move the historic cutter Eagle to a more sheltered spot.
The U.S. has owned the 75-year-old vessel since claiming it from Germany in 1946 as among World War II reparations.
Academy spokesman David Santos said the academy was well-stocked with food and supplies for its 1,030 cadets, and that the brick residence hall where they will ride out the storm has hurricane-resistant windows.
“Because of the topography of the campus, mostly we’d be concerned with the waterfront area,” he said.
The nearby U.S. Navy submarine base in Groton was also preparing to move and secure small craft and barges in anticipation of a possible strike from Hurricane Irene, and planned to send four submarines out to sea for their protection.
Associated Press writers Michael Melia and Susan Haigh contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)