By JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN, Associated Press
MILFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Tropical Storm Irene sent water splashing into the streets of shoreline communities Sunday as it surged across Connecticut, toppling trees and cutting power to roughly a half-million people. One person was killed in a fire sparked by downed wires.
The storm was downgraded from a hurricane before its center started moving across the state, but officials warned the flooding could become dangerous as a storm surge of 4 to 8 feet coincided with an unusually high tide in Long Island Sound. As of 11 a.m., the storm was centered 10 miles west of Danbury and moving north-northeast at 26 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Some 1,600 people were huddled in shelters, including Gerard Jamieson and his wife, Debbie, who were riding out the storm with their four children in a high school cafeteria in Milford. They arrived Saturday night after cutting short a camping trip in Maine, but he said they barely slept because they wanted to keep an eye on the children around so many strangers.
“We just felt it would be a better idea coming here because we have four kids,” he said. “We were pretty much up all night.”
Officials had been bracing for the first hurricane to make landfall in Connecticut since Hurricane Gloria in 1985, but even as a tropical storm they expected a major cleanup effort and were keeping a wary eye on rising flood waters that blocked roads in neighborhoods up and down the shoreline. Thirty-two municipalities reported evacuations ahead of the storm including Bridgeport, New Haven, Milford and Fairfield.
“The water is flowing up the streets and making them impassable,” said Mike Tetreau, first selectman in the town of Fairfield, who said streets in the beach area were swamped.
Streets were blocked across southern parts of the state by fallen trees and power lines. In Middletown, storm-driven winds on the Connecticut River pushed white caps against boats that had been anchored away from shore to avoid a battering on the dock.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy closed the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways because they were littered with debris. He ordered a tractor trailer ban on all state roads, but revised that before noon to allow them on Interstate 95.
One person died overnight and another was severely injured in a fire at a residence in Prospect, said Lt. J. Paul Vance, a state police spokesman. Malloy said the blaze was apparently caused by wires knocked down by the storm.
In Bridgeport, two patients dependent on respirators were carried down five flights of stairs after the facility lost power and the generator failed. They were taken to hospitals, city spokeswoman Elaine Ficarra.
Connecticut’s largest power utility said it surpassed an outage record set by Gloria in 1985, with close to a half-million customers losing power. Connecticut Light & Power spokesman Dave Radanovich said the previous record for CL&P outages from a single event was 477,000 caused by Gloria.
Officials predicted widespread, prolonged 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 will be ready to begin restoring outages as soon as the weather permits.
Some who lost power were venturing out in the rain for coffee, cigarettes and snacks at the Eagle MiniMart Sunoco in Middletown.
“It was either this or fire up the generator just to plug in my Keurig” coffee maker, said Edward Young, 44, who was buying a large coffee and a pack of Marlboro Reds.
Kevin Bush, 41, who was also buying cigarettes, said he’d filled jugs and his bathtub with water to use to flush the toilet, but was unimpressed by the storm so far.
“It’s not that bad, really,” he said, ducking out into the rain.
Many heeded calls to leave flood-prone areas ahead of the storm.
“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.”
Sharon Affeney, a 58-year-old speech and language pathologist who went to the Fairfield school with her brother, said that she was frightened and worried about her house but grateful to be at a shelter Sunday.
“We’re safe and dry. We can’t ask more than that,” she said.
Malloy said 900 Connecticut National Guard troops were at their posts and ready to respond, but warned that authorities may not be able to help people during the height of the storm.
The Millstone nuclear power complex in Waterford, right next to Long Island Sound, was operating at reduced power and was prepared to shut down the two reactors if winds were expected to reach more than 90 mph. But Millstone spokesman Ken Holt said a shutdown did not seem likely.
“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, Shoreline East rail service and Connecticut Transit bus service all were suspended.
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.”
Associated Press writers Stephanie Reitz in Middletown and Michael Melia in Hartford contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)