Flickers Back On:
Nearly half of Fairfield still in the dark; UI response system was seriously flawed
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – Patch had another full day Tuesday, running from one end of town to the other for a status check and following Governor Dannel Malloy from Fairfield Police Headquarters out along Fairfield Beach Road to survey the damage from Hurricane-turned-Tropical Storm Irene.
The day began at 8:30 a.m. at what we’ll call “Checkpoint Seagrape”, a temporary station established by Fairfield Police at the intersection of Fairfield Beach Road and Reef Road, featuring an ever-present patrol sentry or two checking all who would seek to venture down the Fairfield Beach Road extension (house number 700 or so up through 2200). According to Tuesday morning’s watchman, Sgt. Fred Hine, with Officer Jason Kline, only residents who could verify their address or contractors who could produce work orders related to a specific property would be allowed to pass. The idea, said the sergeant, was to deter curiosity seekers, sightseers and, most importantly, potential looters. Joggers and bicyclists were not even allowed to pass.
News crews that had pitched tents out on the Point had pulled up stakes Hine added. In terms of restoration of regular uninhibited access, for now, Hine said, the situation was “a moving target that was being assessed as progress was being made.”
Up Reef and over on One Rod Highway, the town dump was a beehive of activity as a steady stream of independent landscaper trucks, town trucks and private citizens motored in with their tree debris and unloaded onto the site. Mulching machines were working full tilt converting sticks, branches and stumps into fine matter that gardeners would soon tap to lay in a winter bed around plants. The mulch piles were mountainous – two or three times their usual size.
Over at Penfield Beach, a front loader was righting buried picnic tables and removing fallen lifeguard chairs and grills to the parking lot for later inspection. The driver figured all were salvageable and would be quickly repaired and put back into service for Labor Day weekend.
Certainly the biggest news around town Tuesday morning, though, was the arrival at around 11 a.m. of Governor Dannel Malloy, who had been touring hard hit areas around the state to personally assess damage and support local community leaders. The governor pulled up to police headquarters at 100 Reef Road, was ushered in to meet with Police Chief Gary McNamara then guided to a second floor training room to brief a packed house of media representatives. All the TV broadcasters – Channels 3, 4, Fox and 7 -- were there, along with local print media.
Seated at the center of a long table, that also included Fire Chief Dick Felner, McNamara, First Selectman Michael Tetreau and U.S. House of Representatives member Jim Himes, Malloy said, “I just got an extensive briefing on how preparations and the evacuation worked. Fairfield, along the water, was hit very hard. Fairfield continues to suffer with wires down, trees down and waterfront damage.”
Malloy said he had toured Bridgeport earlier and would visit Stamford later. He was expecting to be updated about the eastern and middle parts of the state on a 1:15 p.m. conference call. For now, though, his focus was Fairfield, and he cited, “Forty-eight percent of the town is still without power as of 10 a.m., which is about average for the state. Two hundred trees and wires are still to be cleared.”
The governor suggested that using the 1992 storm that hit the area as a model and benchmark had been a smart approach to dealing with this latest weather event. “The ’92 swell plus a foot was what we prepared for.”
With regard to the electricity situation, Malloy said, “I spoke with Asst. Secretary of Energy Pat Hoffman, urging her to reach out to utility companies around the country and get their help. Northeast Utilities has flown people in from Washington state.”
As the press conference concluded, Lt. Jim Perez announced to media that a bus had been arranged by the fire department to transport them out to the Point, where Malloy would then join them for a tour and to make further remarks. Not a seat was vacant on the 28-passenger bus as on-air talent, cameramen, photographers and writers all climbed aboard, shuttled down Reef Road and made the westbound turn onto Fairfield Beach Road to go out to the Point. Asst. Fire Chief Chris Tracy was at the helm and, like a guide at a theme park, he pointed out certain storm-related points of interest.
All along were previously reported examples of waterlogged household goods dragged out into driveways and front yards and bobcats pushing sand around. But there were also many more contractors present this day – from Southern Connecticut Gas to landscape services like Chad’s.
Reconvening near 2171 Fairfield Beach Road, one of the three condemned homes at the Point, Malloy continued, “My heart goes out to everyone affected by the storm. It’s devastating and I understand it’s devastating. Forty-percent of the state is still without power.”
Malloy related that he was airborne yesterday, passing over storm-affected areas. “I was flying over Simsbury and found it remarkable to see how much land was under water.”
Tetreau jumped in to confirm that the three condemned houses nearby would “have to come down” and that another 20 – a new number in the tally – were unsafe. “Given the limited land mass out here, while we can get the building inspectors out here immediately, it will be a while to get contractors out. I compliment the building department and every crew working townwide for doing what they do and leaving their families alone to attend to this emergency.”
Nearby, at 2182 Fairfield Beach Road, homeowner Ed Grella was mopping, sweeping and disinfecting his residence. “We’re very fortunate,” he said. “We mostly just lost a wall and fence, and our boat and dock. The boat is across the way up on the rocks. The storm pulled the pipes off the bulkhead. We’re counting our blessings.”
Grella gave some background on the house as well as described what prep he did prior to Irene’s arrival. “My son did a good job of rebuilding the place 10 years ago. It was my father’s before that, and ready to be torn down. As the storm approached, my wife got her shoes and clothes out and went to my son’s house. We did evacuate, we’re not as dumb as we look. We don’t have electricity, otherwise we would have offered the governor a cup of coffee.”
As the group had its fill of poking around the tattered structures and prepared to re-board the bus, Tetreau offered a few general thoughts. “Part of the reason we still have 11,000 homes still without power is because we still have over 100 downed powerlines,” he said. “We’re bringing back the power one tree at a time. There’s no fast way to do it. And while UI has put a liaison in our command center, which is police headquarters, communication between that person and the company and teams in the field has been a problem. The system that UI put in place had serious flaws. Our DPW crews can’t go out in the field as they don’t know what wires are live. UI has got to do a better job going forward. They did not listen to our priorities.”
Tetreau cited an example of this breakdown. “UI intentionally took down a large amount of power on Black Rock Turnpike without notice,” he said. That creates hazardous and unsafe conditions. We need to know in advance about a shut-off. Our health inspector had just ok’d restaurants up there to reopen. Then the power went back out and we go into food spoilage mode and the inspector has to go back out. UI has to join the team.”
The First Selectman said UI is now trying to right its wrongs. “I have the cell number of the Senior VP at UI,” he said. “That helps me break log jams in communication. He showed up this morning to say he is personally committed to UI doing a better job. That means improving communications. It shouldn’t take this measure but it’s good news.”
Later in the day, Patch visited the area where Tetreau said UI cut power, taking North Benson as an access route. It was a slog to get there given that traffic control lights at the junctures with Stillson and other crossroads were dark, creating a huge back-up, with no police in place to help move traffic along. This was around 5:30 – 6 p.m., a peak commuting period.
Ironically, along the route, Patch encountered two UI trucks with three men between them, along the side of the road. One worker was directing traffic while the other two stood idle.
At Trader Joe’s, “Captain” Sara Stockman said the store had rolled with the punches through the weekend. “We closed Saturday at 7 p.m. for the crew’s safety,” she said, “and normally we would open at 8 a.m. Sunday, but we had decided to remain closed and advised shoppers in advance with signage about our closure. When we came in late that morning, we realized we had lost power and had to get rid of all of our perishables.” Stockman showed Patch a copy of a letter from Sands Cleary, Director of Health for the Town of Fairfield, that read, “It appears that your establishment has been without power for 24 hours or more. You must discard all your perishable foods and arrange for an inspection from the health department prior to reopening.”
Stockman said the store donated a small percentage of food – mostly bread and dry produce like bananas and apples – to homeless shelters. “The power came back on yesterday (Monday) and trucks started rolling in this morning with deliveries,” she said. “The health department also came by today to inspect and certify us. Then shoppers flooded in.”
Stockman mentioned the unexpected power shut-off Tetreau cited. “The power went back off at 8 p.m, last night (Monday night) but it was along Black Rock Turnpike from Primo Pizza on, thankfully for us.”