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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sprinting to the Finish Line

Sprinting to the Finish Line:
UI set to complete all electricity restoration today despite overnight theft of wire
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – The good word – and very welcome news to a handful of exasperated folks – is that United Illuminating “expects to have all customers restored by Sunday evening,” according to an email First Selectman Michael Tetreau received at 6 p.m. Saturday evening. The company is committed to doing this despite the overnight theft of a large spool of wire that a UI work crew had set aside Saturday night near Canterbury Lane. The quantity was enough to service approximately 150 homes, Tetreau was told.

“As of 10 a.m. this morning, there are 900 UI customers remaining,” said Tetreau, with regard to the number of Fairfield homes that await restoration of their electric power. As of 5 p.m. Saturday, that number was 1,158, according to the First Selectman, who is now being formally briefed by UI twice a day – at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., by email. Tetreau is also being regularly briefed by Chief of Police Gary McNamara, Fire Chief Richard Felner and D.P.W. (Dept. of Public Works) Director Richard White “multiple times a day,” said Tetreau, “by both email and cell phone.”

Up until Friday at 5 p.m., these department leaders, UI liaisons and the First Selectman were meeting in person at Fairfield Police headquarters at 100 Reef Road, where an E.O.C. (Emergency Operations Center) had been established. Initially, Saturday through Tuesday, the meetings were taking place every four hours. After Tuesday, the group met every eight hours, through Friday. The conference room featured a full complement of communications equipment, town maps projected on smart screens for drill-down review, tracking of various work crews and lists of areas and a service schedule for remaining power outages. The E.O.C. has since been shut down.

The police department had also maintained a Mobile Command Center (MCC) at 2009 Black Rock Turnpike, in the new ShopRite parking lot, for the dissemination of information and distribution of basic supplies to area residents. This was deactivated at 8 p.m. on Friday, though anyone still needing help or supplies can contact the police department’s front desk at 203-254-4808.

“The MCC was the least we could have done for a town that was hurting,” said Lt. James Perez. “We had people pulling up in all types of vehicles – over 250 vehicles in all. Everyone received something. The effort brought control and comfort to area residents.”

As of Friday night, Perez said that the MCC, which was initially set up Saturday, August 27, as Hurricane Irene barreled up the east coast toward Fairfield, had distributed 2,600 bags of ice, thousands of bottles of water (over 300 cases and over 100 single gallon containers, courtesy of ShopRite), and an undetermined amount of baby food, granola bars, chips and MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat, 216 donated by the Red Cross). A large quantity of non-perishable food was also trucked in by the Health Dept.

The police department also made great efforts to assist the town’s elderly population. Perez said that, Sunday through Tuesday, officers visited senior centers and senior housing facilities to deliver ice, flashlights, food and other necessary supplies. Then, Wednesday through Friday, a police strike team, comprised of officers and junior Police Explorers, visited individual homes owned by seniors – those who were literally “in the dark”, as Perez put it. “We visited six homes, including two on Spinning Wheel Lane and one on Fairmont Terrace, and assessed residents’ medical needs and delivered ice, water and MRE’s,” he said.

“Elderly care and attention was an early priority,” said Fairfield Police Sgt. Suzanne Lussier, Friday morning. “When we found out they were using candles, we went to Hemlock Hardware and Home Depot, got 100 flashlights and delivered them, for their safety. We delivered 100 alone to Parish Court on Ward Terrace, and distributed another 60 through our mobile command post. A firefighter was also assigned full time to McKinley Elderly Housing. He had a radio to request resources on seniors’ behalf.”

Regarding the overnight theft of UI’s wire, Perez said it was a large spool that had been left on Ferncliff and that its disappearance hampered power restoration efforts. “It’s a horrible thing during a time of need,” he commented. “We are investigating and will be talking to neighbors. UI is doing everything they can to complete their work despite the loss.”

The homes the wire spool was targeted to serve were on Canterbury Lane, Nepas Road and Romanock Road. The crews were given replacement spools and picked up with their repair work this morning, according to Tetreau.

According to Chief McNamara, there were 3,100 Fairfield homes without power as of 8 a.m. Friday. At that point, power to all schools but Mill Hill had been restored (Mill Hill power was back as of this morning), in time for public schools to open for the year Tuesday morning. “Schools are one of the town’s priorities,” said Lussier. “They have to be inspected by the fire and health departments.”

One major UI concentration was system infrastructure on Burr Street. That work had been completed by Friday, which helped free up UI resources and personnel. “Some damage, when repaired, restores power to large areas. Other cases are individualized,” said Sgt. Lussier.

On a wider scope, McNamara said town officials are waiting for President Obama to declare Fairfield’s eligibility for disaster relief through FEMA. “FEMA is on the ground currently in the state,” the Chief said Friday morning. “One division deals with public entities like town structures, resources that had to be called in, etc. Another division deals with private concerns, like home damage. Two FEMA reps were in here yesterday meeting with Deputy Fire Chief Chris Tracy and Lt. Chris Tursi from the police department. The reps were out on the Point conducting an initial survey of Fairfield Beach Road. Their review process has begun, though it’s a long process.”

McNamara reiterated that town residents should be alert for fraud and opportunists. “FEMA officials will have proper identification,” he said, adding that the police department hoped to provide to the public a copy of FEMA identification so that homeowners have something to cross-check. In the meantime, McNamara said homeowners can call the police department at 203-254-4800 with any questions or to report suspected fraudulent representation.

Building inspectors are also circulating in the area, according to Tetreau. “They are currently in the Fairfield Woods and Stratfield area,” he said. Their inspection work includes a visit to Mill Hill Elementary School, where renovation efforts were being completed. The hope was that work would reach a point wherein a temporary c.o. could be issued, Tetreau explained.

D.P.W. crews, at this point, said Tetreau, were focusing on clean-up of public areas. “There is no project or initiative in place to pick up brush at individuals’ homes,” he said. “The D.P.W.’s concentration is on parks, public spaces and the first 10 to 15 feet of private properties. Just to clarify, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to clean up and dispose of brush and/or downed trees that fall on their property.”

Asked if the town would have handled its response to Hurricane-Turned-Tropical Storm Irene any differently, Sgt. Lussier said, “We would do nothing differently. We managed this event from the beginning, tapping all our private emergency response groups and Explorers ages 12 to 21. Some mistakes were made along the way, and we will debrief as a town and as an agency to review what we did right and wrong. But, really, our personnel and resources all fell into place. All worked in coordination and we were unified as a town.”

Spotlight on a homeowner without power: Cristy Lancaster Schnauffer

When Mike Tetreau noted on his Facebook page this morning that the number of UI customer outages was down to 900, a FB friend of his, Cristy Lancaster Schnauffer, a sales agent at Prudential Connecticut Realty of Fairfield, commented that she was one of those 900.

Schnauffer, who spoke with Patch early this afternoon from her daughter’s home in Sag Harbor, L.I., to which Schnauffer and her husband had finally retreated, lost power at her Black Rock Turnpike home at 10:30 a.m. last Sunday.

“I didn’t want to go until we had power,” she said, “but my husband encouraged me to.”

Speaking about the saga, Schnauffer said, “Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, we had no power and no water. Two trees had come down across the driveway, blocking our path so we couldn’t get out. Ironically, with the exception of our immediate neighbor, with whom we share the driveway, all of our surrounding neighbors had power. Cablevision came and went on Tuesday – we thought they were UI at first. By Wednesday, I was getting afraid and my husband said it was silly to stay here. After having a private service come in to clear the trees, we borrowed a friend’s car and left for my daughter’s late Wednesday.”

Schnauffer said she heard from her immediate neighbor that AT&T was onsite this morning but that the provider said there was a major power line down and they wouldn’t be able to do anything until that’s repaired. “My husband called UI and they are aware of this,” she said. “The word is that it will be taken care of by the end of the day.”

She said she had spoken to Tony Hwang, State Representative for Connecticut 134th District -- to whom she sold his first house – about her situation. “He drove to my house to personally see the scene for himself, this past Friday.”

Schnauffer knows her case is not an isolated one. “Storms like this happen,” she said. “I went through Gloria, but this was extraordinary.”

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