By STEPHANIE REITZ
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – President Barack Obama declared an emergency for Connecticut early Saturday as residents readied for the first bands of lashing rain from Irene, which could be 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, but the rain could begin Saturday. Officials warned that Irene was likely to cause prolonged power outages and flooding in low-lying areas along the shore, where residents were rushing to protect property.
“We’re tying up the boat and pulling the lawn furniture in,” said Nancy Vener, 73, of Westport, who was worried the storm could push water from Long Island Sound into her shoreline home. “We’ve had it come up 10 or 12 feet, but we’ve never actually had it come in the house.”
In Fairfield, First Selectman Mike Tetreau said a mandatory evacuation would take effect at noon Saturday, affecting 5,000 to 6,000 people along the shoreline, and a shelter will be opened at a high school. Other coastal municipalities including Guilford and Milford have called for voluntary evacuations.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy urged anyone living in areas that have flooded before to seek shelter elsewhere. He advised residents to stay off the roads beginning Saturday night and said bus and train service would be suspended in cities across the state.
A hurricane warning was issued for the Connecticut coast by the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasts placed the storm’s track through central parts of Connecticut, then north into central Massachusetts. But Irene could nudge as far west as western Long Island and western Connecticut, or as far east as Rhode Island.
“This is perhaps the most serious climate event in state history since 1938,” said Malloy, making reference to that year’s hurricane, which brought 17-foot storm surges and caused 600 deaths.
Some forecasts predicted the storm could bring steady winds of 50 mph and higher as far north as Hartford and Springfield, Mass., with higher gusts, heavy rain and flooding throughout the region.
“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,” said Glenn Field, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass. “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.
Both Obama and Malloy declared a state of emergency, and the governor authorized the National Guard to mobilize the resources it needs to respond to the storm. Malloy said he has spoken with municipal officials and got the sense that people are taking the storm very seriously.
The storm surge along the coast, Malloy said, could potentially be 4 to 8 feet, depending on the timing of the tides and the strength of the winds.
Malloy also said he plans to close the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways over concerns about the potential for flooding and falling trees. Malloy said the closure’s timing will depend on how quickly the high winds ramp up. He said the state could begin to feel the effects of Irene around 10 p.m. Saturday.
The Connecticut National Guard also sent advance notice to 200 soldiers and airmen to report for storm duty Sunday morning, and it 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.
The University of Connecticut and Central Connecticut State University announced they were canceling Monday’s classes. Connecticut College in New London also delayed its new students’ arrival dates, postponed the start of the new school year and urged those students already on campus to leave before 5 p.m. Saturday if possible.
Many of the 42 school districts in Connecticut scheduled to start the new school year Monday also were making backup plans in case buildings or buses are damaged. Districts including Bridgeport, Waterbury and Montville announced they were moving back their start by a day.
Officials at the New Haven Open, the final WTA tennis tournament before next week’s U.S. Open, decided to bring in cranes Friday night to remove the 2-ton scoreboards from either end of the Connecticut Tennis Center. The tournament’s final match already had been moved up from 5 p.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday to avoid the storm.
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.
While many residents prepared for the worst, 61-year-old Carolyn Millman, who grew up in New Orleans, said she thought people were overreacting.
“The first one I remember is Betsy in 1955, and we had to be evacuated by boat,” said Millman, who lives in New Haven. “So this, I’m not concerned about it, especially the way they always downgrade it as it gets up here.”
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 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.
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 in Hartford and Pat Eaton-Robb in New Haven contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)