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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Patch Takes Tour for Storm Recovery Update

Patch Takes Tour for Storm Recovery Update:
Meets with DPW tree crew, homeowners without power, Animal Control, the First Selectman and Police Chief
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT –  Often, the best way to see what’s really going on in a particular situation is to jump right in the middle of it and talk to all the players. Patch took the plunge Thursday, romping around speaking to tree crews, town officials and homeowners who continue to respond to and clear up after Irene, the infamous hurricane that originated in the Caribbean, whacked the Carolinas, pushed through the New York Metro region and barreled into New England, not quite a week ago. Key updates are highlighted below for readers’ quick review.

Working as a team late morning Thursday on Smith Street in the Beach Area, a Department of Public Works crew and techs from Bruce’s Landscaping & Excavating cleared away piles of brush that homeowners had pushed to the curb for pick-up.

“We’ve been focused on the beach the whole week, since Monday,” said Joe Kolenda, operating a front loader as a subcontractor. “It was devastated more than any other area by water and sand on the road. We’ve been moving the sand and brush.”

Working alongside Kolenda, in a second front loader, the DPW’s John Masciola said, “Even without power, a lot of people have been coming out of their homes and offering us water and whatever else we need. At first, I thought they were going to yell at us, but they’ve been so appreciative of what we’ve been doing. They’re trying to help us out as much as we’re helping them out. They’ve been great.”

Masciola’s colleague, Christopher O’Connell, a 37-year DPW veteran, gave a helicopter view of Irene and the clean-up process. “This storm was similar to other past ones in terms of debris,” he said. “We’ll probably complete our work by next week if I had to give a rough estimate. People keep bringing stuff out – they’re still doing clean-up.”

Masciola estimated that, under the DPW umbrella, they had eight front loaders and over 30 dump trucks operating around town. “My crew has been focused on the beach area – Fairfield Beach Road and the Point were the worst.”

In the crew’s travels, they happened upon some Halloween decorations being tossed out – a miniature hanging skeleton and a hanging pumpkin. They dubbed the pair Boner and Jack and affixed them to the front loaders as mascots.

Call it a way of finding some light moments in an otherwise grueling effort that kept the crew away from their families for long stretches of time. “I’ve been working 12-hour shifts,” said Masciola. “I’m a single dad with three teenage daughters and we hadn’t had power since Saturday. It was just restored last night (Wednesday) at 5. My girls have been understanding that dad had to go help the town. They turned the situation into a mini-camping experience. Each night, when I got off, I’d pick up ice and a few other things, then we’d cook on the grill, sit around with candles and play board games. It’s been a great bonding experience actually, despite the challenges. It wasn’t easy without power for all those days.”

Vince Rigoli, a long-time DPW’er who was manning chainsaws, offered a bit of storm quality analysis. “Among tree debris, we’re seeing some really large oak trees, and a lot of brush,” he said. “The storm made more of a mess – with a lot of small limbs – than dropping bigger stuff and whole trees. There’s still a lot of that, but other storms have dropped more trees. The biggest challenges of this storm have been no electricity, food spoilage, cold showers, flooding and water damage. It’s been hardest for the elderly who can’t get about easily. We try to help as much as we can, but there’s only so much you can do. People are thankful the storm wasn’t worse.”

Rigoli added, “Our machine operators are doing a tremendous job, which makes everyone else’s job easier. They have to look over their shoulders all the time – for traffic, people walking dogs, children playing, cars backing out of driveways. It’s not easy and the days are long – physically and mentally exhausting. And then they’re going home to their own storm challenges and power outages.”

Andrew Silva, 15, knows the term “power outage” all too well. A resident at 127 Smith Street, he was working midday Thursday in his front yard trying to clear up tree and leaf debris while his stepdad was off at work in Shelton. “We had many large branches come down about 3 a.m. on Sunday which knocked out our power. We were the only ones to lose power on the block. We took all our food and moved it to my grandma’s house in New Canaan. We’ve continued to stay here, as it’s closer to my stepdad’s job, and have been going out for our meals – to McDonald’s, Subway, etc.”

Silva said the family spoke with United Illuminating Thursday morning. “They told us it would be another week or more before we get power back,” he said. “We’re pretty upset about that timing.”

Things were fairly sedate over at Animal Control on One Rod Highway mid-afternoon Thursday. Vinnie Pennatto attributed the department’s state of calm to pet owners that prepared ahead of time for the storm. “We had just two stray dogs that were picked up during the course of the storm and no reports of any injured animals,” he said. “We sheltered in total 11 dogs and two cats at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.”

At 4 p.m. Thursday, First Selectman Mike Tetreau was just emerging from a two-hour long Emergency Management Team meeting held at Fairfield Police Headquarters. Among updates, he gave some quick numbers on power restoration progress. “As of right now, we have 6,200 homes left without power,” he said. “By midnight, the aim is 5,900, 2,500 by Friday midnight, 1,000 by Saturday midnight and as close to total by Sunday midnight.”

Tetreau offered, “This is one of the worst storms to hit Fairfield, knocking out power to 75% of homes here, or to 16,000 people. We had an extensive number of trees and utility poles down, which has complicated restoration efforts.”

Tapped for additional updates and input, Fairfield Police Chief Gary McNamara provided a wealth of inter-departmental feedback.

“We continue to work with UI to get the numbers down,” McNamara began. “We have also deployed three officers during the overnights to those areas in town with the most power outages – Fairfield Beach Road, Mill Hill / Greenfield Hill, and Stratfield. Their purpose is to ensure safety and deter theft. At the same time, we are continuing to staff our Mobile Command Center (on Black Rock Turnpike), to provide citizens with information updates and resources.”

With regard to public schools, McNamara said the EMT met with Superintendent of Schools Dr. David Title and confirmed the delay in opening public schools until Tuesday, as recently announced. Meanwhile, McNamara said Director of Health Sands Cleary’s department continues to test water at the beach and Lake Mohegan. “The Lake remains closed while the beach is open and the water will be swimmable for Labor Day weekend,” the Chief said.

On an additional note about power and trees down, McNamara said, “There are still a few road closures, but the DPW’s Rich White anticipates that all will be accessible by the weekend. A real problem has been significant electric system infrastructure damage in the Burr Street area. UI is having to reconstruct poles and headers, which takes a lot of resources to do.” McNamara hoped the work would be completed Thursday night.

The Chief shared a power-related advisory for homeowners’ benefit. “If you have damage to a utility box or wires down that were attached to the house, you should call a private electrician.” The advisory applied to the Silva Family’s situation on Smith Street and that family was subsequently urged to make that reach-out.

McNamara also warned about would-be opportunists. “During any catastrophic incident, there are people who try to take advantage,” he said. “There’s usually an increase in FEMA and fix-it scams. People need to be on the lookout. Ask for proper i.d. If you’re unsure, call the police department.”

The Chief said the town is also in the early stages of developing a mechanism for residents to report their personal storm-related damage, for Federal funding’s sake. “We will be asking people to provide information via a ‘Survey Monkey’ type tool over the Internet,” he said.

Down on Fairfield Beach Road, from the Seagrape Bar on out to the Point, the recovery slogged on. The police sentry that had been a feature since Sunday was gone and now curbside piles, like that at #1220, of water-damaged furniture and household items, had become the norm. A stack of green plastic patio chairs in front of #1221 featured the sign “We’re Lost”, in hopes that the owners of the wayward seating could be located.

At the Point, news crews had had their fill and long since moved on. The back room of #2154, which had broken away from the rest of the house and dropped into the inlet, had been removed and demolished. The deck of the house was still attached, though half of it was submerged in seawater. Next door, #2170 still advertised “FOR RENT Sept. 1”, though a boat and overturned table were now front garden ornaments and much of the house’s siding had been torn away. The back of another condemned house, #2131, once exposed by the storm to the ocean, had been sealed up with sheets of plywood. Chunks of concrete, from shattered landings, still littered the street in front of #2256.

Seen crossing the road with a couple bags of groceries, a homeowner said, “We still have no power. We’re using a generator. There’s been no word about power restoration. I saw a truck on the Old Post Road earlier today, but not down here,” she said.

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