By DAVE COLLINS, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Local authorities went door-to-door along parts of the Connecticut coast to enforce mandatory evacuation orders and travelers were urged to get off state roads by sundown Saturday as Hurricane Irene barreled toward New England. (Click here to link to a list of local shelters, provided by United Way 211 Info-Line)
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and local officials said their biggest concern was flooding from expected storm surges of 4 to 7 feet along Long Island Sound, due about the same time as high tide late Sunday morning. The storm was also expected to dump up to a foot of rain, cause problems in flood-prone areas near rivers and streams and down trees.
State officials were considering closing state highways, and Malloy expected the tree-lined Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways to be closed later Saturday.
“I’m pleading with folks to understand the implications of this storm,” Malloy said. “It would be no fun to be in the middle of 50-mile-per-hour winds with trees coming down.”
Also Saturday, President Barack Obama declared an emergency in Connecticut and ordered federal aid to help with state and local response efforts.
Several shoreline communities issued mandatory evacuations, affecting thousands of residents including Bridgeport, New Haven, Fairfield, Milford and Stonington. Several other towns urged voluntary evacuations.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said the city was ordering residents to evacuate the Morris Cove area near Tweed-New Haven Airport because of expected flooding.
“It only has essentially two ways in and out and it’s going to get isolated,” DeStefano said about Morris Cove. “We would have great difficulty getting emergency vehicles in and out. The smart thing to do is to rather be safe than sorry.”
In Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, Mayor Bill Finch ordered evacuations in all low-lying areas of the city at 4 p.m. Officials went door-to-door before the order asking people to leave the area, and Finch said more manpower would be deployed through late Saturday night to help with evacuations.
Residents and business owners rushed to make final preparations. Many heeded calls to leave or decided to go on their own, while others planned to ride out Irene.
“I have two small children, so we’re not going to stay here,” said Steffi Williams, 41, who lives in a waterfront home in Milford. She was on her way to a hotel further inland in Shelton on Saturday, before town officials ordered mandatory evacuations. She said her home is in the middle of being renovated and she had hurricane-resistant windows put in.
“This will be the first real test,” Williams said. “We’ll see if that was worth all the money we paid for it.
Tom Salzano of Milford put tape on the windows of his waterfront home to protect them from strong winds, but was considering buying plywood after watching some of his neighbors boarding up their homes. He said half his roof blew off in a recent storm.
“I’m a little concerned to be honest,” Salzano said. “The wind can be really nasty here.”
Forecasts showed rain and tropical-storm-force winds moving into southern Connecticut between 10 p.m. and midnight Saturday, state officials said. Category 1 hurricane winds of at least 74 mph were expected to hit the coast at about 7 a.m. Sunday.
Officials expected the brunt of Irene to make landfall in the Stamford area around 11 a.m. Sunday. High winds and heavy rains were expected to last into mid-Sunday afternoon. Sustained winds of 75 mph and gusts of up to 95 mph were predicted at landfall and were expected to lessen as the storm moves inland.
Malloy said National Guard troops will be deployed when Irene starts to move out Sunday and about 700 troops will be ready to respond across the state Monday. He warned residents that authorities may not be able to help people during the storm, which is expected to be the first hurricane to make a direct hit on the state in 20 years.
Officials also predicted widespread, prolonged power outages, possibly lasting several days.
Spokesmen for Connecticut Light & Power Co. and The United Illuminating Co., the two major electricity utilities in the state, said hundreds of regular crews and hundreds of out-of-state workers, including some from as far away as Alabama, Michigan and Quebec, Canada, will be ready to begin restoring outages as soon as the weather permits.
Workers at the Millstone nuclear power complex in Waterford, right next to Long Island Sound, were ready to shut down the two reactors at the site if winds reached or were expected to reach more than 90 mph, Millstone spokesman Ken Holt said. He said the process takes several hours.
Holt said late Saturday afternoon that officials didn’t believe they would have to shut down the reactors, but the plants were operating at a reduced reactor power percentage just in case.
“We have robust flood barriers in place. We have water-tight doors,” Holt said. “Nuclear power plants are among the most hardened structures in the country.”
Nearly all flights at Bradley International Airport north of Hartford scheduled for Sunday were canceled, and airport officials were hoping to return to a normal schedule Monday.
Metro-North train service was suspended at noon Saturday, and Shoreline East rail service and Connecticut Transit bus service were to stop running at 8 p.m.
Malloy urged people to get off state roads by sundown and to finish their storm preparations as soon as possible. He said Irene could be the most serious weather event in state history since the 1938 hurricane, which brought 17-foot storm surges and killed 600.
At the Navy submarine base in Groton, storm preparations were nearly complete Saturday. Base spokesman Chris Zendan said the four submarines that were at the base were moved out to sea in deep waters and 22,000 sand bags were placed around facilities there. Coast Guard officials were expected to move at least one of their vessels further up the Thames River to the submarine base for safety.
“We’re preparing for a worst-case scenario of a storm surge of nine to 10 feet,” Zendan said.
Along the Branford coast, ferries traveled between the shore and the Thimble Islands on Saturday as residents and vacationers left ahead of the storm. Local firefighters went island to island in boats urging people to leave. Fire officials said nearly 50 people had left, others were finishing boarding up their homes with plans to leave, but five insisted on riding out the storm. About a dozen islands have homes on them.
“We advised them that they’ll be pretty much on their own for a while,” fire Capt. Steve Palumbo said. “We do what we can to suggest they get off. At some point, we won’t have access to them.”
Shelters were set up across the state, and officials were talking with nursing homes that may be in harm’s way.
Officials at the New Haven Open tennis tournament moved up Saturday’s championship final to 1 p.m. from 5 p.m. and removed 2-ton scoreboards with cranes. The world’s No. 1 women’s player, Caroline Wozniacki, beat Petra Cetkovska for her fourth-straight New Haven title, before heading to next week’s U.S. Open in New York.
Wozniacki’s boyfriend, U.S. Open golf champion Rory McIlroy, spent the week with her on the Yale campus and watched the match from the player’s box.
Asked about leaving for New York, Wozniacki said, “We’re checking the radars all the time. It looks OK now. We’re going to be safe inside tonight.”
A tournament volunteer, Mary Ann Mitchell of North Haven, said she prepared for the storm by bottling some water, filling her bathtub with water and removing objects from her yard. She believed people were over-reacting to the storm.
“I know they are predicting no electricity for a week, possibly five days, so I know that people have to be preparing,” she said “But it’s hard to believe some of the carts going out of (the grocery store). I think they are going to be set for a month.”
Connecticut has not been hit by a hurricane since Bob roared across southeast New England in 1991, causing six deaths in the state and about $680 million in damage in the region.
Mystic Seaport closed for the weekend 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.
Associated Press writers Pat Eaton-Robb in New Haven, Conn., and John Christoffersen in Milford, Conn., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)