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Friday, September 23, 2011

Fairfield Brushes Up after Irene Drops In

Fairfield Brushes Up after Irene Drops In:
Utilities being restored; tree debris bundled; sand piles diminishing; remarkable findings after water recedes
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 8/29)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – You can’t keep a good Fairfielder down. Fairfielders are a resilient, fun-loving bunch and, if you think a little dust-up’s going to stop them in their tracks, you don’t know Fairfielders.

As Patch embarked on another tour of the area, at 5:30 p.m. late Monday afternoon, locals had already made a big dent in the clean-up process after Tropical Storm Irene, known in southern states as Hurricane Irene, made her brash town visit.

Like oversized organic lawn ornaments, piles of tree limbs and leaves had popped up curbside all over town, the result of the hard labors of residents exercising some good old-fashioned elbow grease. Indeed, leaf blowers and rakes had become the fashionable accessories, much like Coach bags and Ray Bans were mandatories pre-storm.

Next to many of these tree salads, particularly in the Beach Area, were the sopping wet, musty-smelling contents of garages and basements – victims of a surprising amount of water that rushed far in along low-lying streets. 

Other popular late summer must-have style statements included shovels and brushes, which Beach Area residents modeled in their driveways, pushing muck away from asphalt surfaces and blue stone walkways.

Here and there, sandbags, used the day before to try and block the course of advancing water, stood in rows, removed to the side.

And what trendy Fairfielder wouldn’t want to be seen in a late model Bobcat front loader? These were brought in by crews like Pine Creek Landscape Design. Said biz owner Matt Grauer, on the scene near 997 Fairfield Beach Road, “I have a lot of customers here. It’s where I grew up and started. Sand displacement happens every time we have a major storm.”

Joining Grauer on his day’s rounds and sitting in a company dumptruck was his girlfriend Emily Lynch. “I work in Stamford as a graphic artist for a marketing company,” she explained, “but the trains were down today. So I decided to spend my day off on Matt’s job site. It’s been fun to see what he does all day and experience a typical day’s work.”

Further west and not having quite as much fun was Nancy Henry, the homeowner at 1165 Fairfield Beach Road, standing beside a pile of soggy bric-a-brac raked from her garage. “The house was fine… a little sand build-up. But we had four feet of water in the garage,” she said. “We always expect to get water but just not as much as this time. My husband is an insurance agent, so we’ve got all the coverage. But it’s a mess… all the mud and dirt. By the weekend, though, we should be in good shape. Heck of a way to clean your garage.”

Further along Fairfield Beach Road, a gas company rep summed up what he’d seen. “The end of Fairfield Beach Road is the worst. The gas meters were actually ripped off the houses. We’ve been repairing them until they get the electricity back on, which will allow the gas to come back on.”

He pointed to both an adjacent mailbox with a horizontal watermark across the box and an Evacuation Route sign that had a dirty watermark just past the 9-foot above sea level indicator. The latter were spitting distance from 1206 Fairfield Beach Road, where Allison Haigh was helping her boyfriend remove waterlogged items from their two-story rental. She pointed to two cars at the back of their driveway – a 2010 Mercedes and a 2008 Volkswagen Jetta – that had been underwater during the storm and now had all their doors open and mats out to try and effect a drying process. Water was still collected in the foot wells of the Jetta.

“The cars belong to our neighbor across the street,” Haigh said. “Sea water came up and over the cars,” Haigh said. “The Jetta’s a total loss according to the owner; the Mercedes might be saved.”

Out on The Point, Susan Fuchs, the tenant at 2154 Fairfield Beach Road, one of the three houses that had been condemned due to storm damage, was understandably frantic as she stuffed into boxes what she was able to salvage from the home. The structure had cracked in half, with the back half falling into the inlet.

“I’ve lived here for two years. This is just unbelievable,” Fuchs said. “My husband didn’t want to evacuate. We had a big fight about it actually. The Westport Inn has been stupendous, holding our dogs and putting us up. They’re the only place that will allow pets.”

Steps away, Cablevision rep Hector Rosado was making assessments, though his hands were a bit strapped with regard to next steps. “I’ve never seen anything like this. All of Benson Road’s powerlines were down. The flooding was amazing. Probably thousands of people were affected. We’re sort of playing a waiting game to see who’s got service after electricity gets restored. We can’t do anything until then.”

One silver lining to the destruction at the point was the survival of Jackie Fedor’s grandfather’s house at 2170 Fairfield Beach Road. “We come here every weekend in the summer,” Fedor said. “I’ve come here since I was a baby. In 40 years, I’ve never seen anything like this. Amazingly, we only lost siding while every neighbor’s house around us was seriously damaged.”

Two military Humvees came up the road then – a reconnaissance team from the National Guard, 248th Engineers, part of the 192nd division out of Stratford. They were surveying the area, according to one of the drivers, to determine needs. Their trucks rolled by satellite broadcast and news service trucks that were nesting on either side of the road.

Unintentionally, Fairfield had found itself in the public eye. 

The Morning After Irene

The Morning After Irene:
Damage being assessed; three homes condemned, three deemed unsafe; beachfront residents returning
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 8/29)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Monday morning couldn’t have been more perfect – temps hovering around 70, a cloudless blue sky, light breeze and calm, sparkling waters. One could not have imagined that a ferocious, record-setting tropical storm had pushed through 24 hours before.

Patch stepped out around 8:30 a.m. to pad about the beach area and capture the sights and citizens’ perspectives a day after a bullying broad named Irene pushed her way through Fairfield.

Expected and evident on most, if not all, town roads was your standard tree debris, joined by clumps of leaf bags and the odd cone or section of caution tape left from earlier road closures. In the Beach Area, a section of Edward Street between Penfield Road and Lalley Blvd. remained cordoned off due to downed tree limbs in the middle of the road. A homeowner there, Mini Zacchia, was busy in her two-car garage picking up water-damaged items, deciding whether to keep them or not and having her daughter Ashley jot down any unwanted items and toss them into the back of a dump truck that had been made available to them. Next door, a ServPro truck pulled up and delivered dehumidifiers and carpet dryers.

At the corner of Lalley and Fairfield Beach Road, homeowners Linda and Ron Lanzo reported, “Our living quarters are on the second floor. Water was nine inches deep around the property, and five or six inches deep in the garage, but we managed to keep stuff dry. It was an experience and neighbors came together.”

Ron Lanzo said he was surprised by how quickly the storm organized itself. “By 10:30 a.m. Sunday, all hell broke loose. There was a breach in our neighbor’s (435 Fairfield Beach Road) seawall – the second time this has happened – that took out his driveway. His shrubs were uprooted and came out onto the road.”

A day earlier, water covered the road around the Lanzo’s and much of Fairfield Beach Road. Since, the majority of water had receded and sand had been cleared off the roadways by town vehicles, whose response was magnificent. A front-loader, in fact, was busy on Penfield Beach leveling the sand.

Now, town trucks were being replaced by major TV news crews that had set up vans and satellite dishes near the Seagrape Bar/Restaurant and were conducting live broadcasts.

There, police had strung caution tape across the road and were only allowing residents and other pedestrians on foot onto the stretch of Fairfield Beach Road from #1 to house #3000 or so. This was a more relaxed stance as, the previous evening, the police were not letting anyone through. Later in the morning, an inspector from the Fairfield Fire Dept. did a pass through and gave a thumbs-up to Lt. Tom Mrozek to start letting residents back in, in their vehicles, which were beginning to amass along adjacent Reef Road.

Pacing along on foot up to house number 1000, the general scene was lots of sand displacement, erosion and deep grooves in gravel-based driveways and debris on lawns. The homes between numbers 1000 to 1500, in comparison, were relatively untouched despite one homeowner reporting water up to the bottom of her mailbox. From 2000 on, it was more of the 1 to 1000 scene – until the end of the road, that is.

House #’s 2149, 2155 and 2161 all had notices tacked to them declaring them unsafe, subject to a building inspector’s look-see. The stairs of the latter home had had its stairs ripped away, cables were hanging down and water was spewing from a water main connection.

House #’s 2131, 2154 and 2171 were all condemned, deemed “a menace to public safety by the Condemnation Board” of Fairfield.

While 2131 looked presentable on the beach road side, its beachfront face was clawed away and interior completely exposed. Pilings underneath were also crooked – it seemed the building structure had shifted on the pilings.

House 2154, along the inlet, had been pummeled by debris and was leaning at an angle. Tts back half had cracked off and was hanging into the creek.

House 2171 had big “bites” out of it, from its roadside face – exposing an inner bedroom – and its ocean side face – exposing other interiors.

A couple – Kristen and Mike Ginley – had jogged to the spot from their home at 285 Old Dam Road, on the other side of the inlet, and were amazed by the damage here. In contrast, their property had hardly been affected. “Our saving grace is the old dam,” said Mike, “a berm designed to protect the town. Town and the Corps of Engineers built it in the 1950s. It’s really quite ingenious. Seas affected by the ’92 storm came within a foot of going over. This storm came within 12 to 18 inches of going over.”

Mike said he stayed in his home as the storm moved through. “It really turned on around 3 a.m.,” he related. “The house was shaking, and monsoon-like rain was coming down. Then there was a calm, from 6 a.m. to about 10 a.m., when it seemed like the worst was over. But, at the same time, the tide was quickly rising. It was a nail-biter. I put steel cables on my dock, connecting them to trees. And my son and I put a rock on one of our stairs that lead to the dock and said, ‘If the water goes over that, we’re leaving. The water reached the stair below it at high tied – 11 a.m. – but that’s as far as it came, then receded quickly. We saw debris floating up the inlet.”

Added Kristen, “Usually you see this kind of thing somewhere else, or on the TV, not in your own backyard.”

Walking back along the beach, one became suddenly and eerily aware that there were no boats out on the Sound, not even the almost ever-present Bridgeport-Port Jefferson ferry boats. There was no air traffic either. Just beautiful and cloudless, much like the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the region was visited by another disaster, albeit that one man-inflicted.

Doing clean-up around the beach-side of their house at 1513 Fairfield Beach Road was Ana Mazei and her two tow-headed children Isabel, 9, and Danny, 8. Said Ana, “The dune here was priceless. It kept the water at bay and from washing up and over.”

Reflecting the trashed road-side of their properties, homes in the 1 to 1000 section of Fairfield Beach Road were pock-marked and pecked at – lumber and decking was piled up against a jetty, one home was still sandbagged like a military outpost.

By 9:30 a.m., a couple dozen residents of the blocked-off end of Fairfield Beach Road had gathered and were eager to drive to their homes. One couple was Marcia and Steve Saft, of house #2073.

“We had extensive exterior damage, the stairs had washed out to sea, both seawalls were damaged and a plywood barrier had been comprised letting water and sand into our living room,” said Steve.

“The important thing is that no lives were lost and no one was injured,” said Marcia. “It’s sad and reinforces the fragility of life but, in the end, it’s only property.”

Irene Lashes Fairfield, Leaves Her Mark

Irene Lashes Fairfield, 
Leaves Her Mark:
Two houses collapse; 14,000 lose power; new Pavilion damaged; tons of tree debris; widespread flooding
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 8/28)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – She snuck into the area under the cover of darkness, teeth bared, claws extended. Stepping ashore Sunday morning, she lowered a shoulder and pushed the sea and sand well into Fairfield’s Beach Area, knocking two houses into the ocean, sending trees slamming on top of other structures and tearing wires from utility poles. It was a wild tantrum that lasted all day and continued into the evening, with lingering high winds assailing already pummeled landscapes.

While downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm as she tore northward up the East Coast, Irene reserved a place for herself in historical weather archives for the region and beyond.

At first light, she was already licking the Sound, savoring it like a salty buffet and stretching out to tear at Penfield’s new beach pavilion. She lifted up lifeguard chairs as if they were toys and hurled them at the facility’s fa├žade, while undermining its foundation with swirling currents. The same was true at adjacent Jennings Beach, where she reared up to 10 feet in sea height to repeatedly crash on the pebbly shore.

Irene was not alone in the assault. Her partner – we’ll call him Surge – puffed up sea levels to new heights while a third party, Luna, tugged away as well. There was no avoiding the trio in low-lying lands. Boats at South Benson Marina bobbed above roadways. Waves crashed over seawalls at St. Mary’s-by-the-Sea. Limbs, leaves and whole trees were plucked, thrashed and toppled.

Then, major breaches, like so many cracks in a dam, sent water cascading over the dunes -- at Penfield Road, Reef Road and other prominent points. Police were dispatched to each beach-bound thoroughfare, to keep citizens out of harm’s way and monitor the flow. The invading water moved quickly up the roadways, swallowing asphalt, saturating storm drains, carrying along anything loose in its path. The sight, though troubling in concept, was novel as a visual and, soon, the curious massed – taking photos, rolling up pant legs to wade through it, traversing it with bicycles and waders. It reached Edward, then Quincy and even Paulding, threatening to keep going to the Old Post Road.

However, Irene showed mercy and pulled back on her reins, holding fast and even backing off a bit. This only served to excite onlookers more, who suddenly produced watercraft, like kayaks, canoes and dinghies, to move more creatively from point to point. Crowds grew and paced through the Penfield parking lot, then out onto the beach, which had consumed and half buried grills, picnic tables, buoys and lifeguard chairs. A festive atmosphere spawned, as if a collective neighborhood block party was commencing. Locals compared notes on storm damage, recalled prior storms and shared resources.

Irene had made her mark alright, and days of labor lay ahead to try and return the area to its trim, neatly tapered self. Fairfielders had been here before though, and would be here again – the price to be paid for the privilege of life by the sea.   

Patch on Hurricane Patrol

Patch on Hurricane Patrol:
Saturday evening tour around town as Irene creeps closer
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 8/27)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT --  Late evening Saturday, as Hurricane Irene beat a path from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, towards Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and New York City, Patch went out and about from the Post Road and shops downtown, to the beachfront and up to Fairfield University and the shelters at Fairfield Ludlowe Middle School to see what it could see. The tour followed an 8 p.m. Reverse 911 call from Fairfield First Selectman Michael Tetreau, who urged everyone to sty in their homes, that tropical storm winds were approaching, hurricane winds would be arriving by morning and to expect long-term power disruptions. He concluded his message with the sentiment, “Be safe, stay home and be cautious.”

Here’s our report – and accompanying photos -- divvied by area and/or neighborhood:

Beach Area, approximately 10 p.m.
Minor tree debris and water pooling noticed on the roadways. Several stores and taverns, such as the Seagrape and pizza joint, at the intersection of Reef and Fairfield Beach Road, sandbagged. A number of Fairfield Police patrol cars in the neighborhood and patrolmen with flashlights on foot inspecting residences and the surf level. Most homes on Fairfield Beach Road evacuated – only a couple with signs of life. The ever-dependable 7-Eleven open for business, but partially boarded up.

Post Road, from Bob’s Stores to The Shack, about 10:30 p.m.
The parking lot full of cars, likely owned by Beach Area residents, at Bob’s Stores. Victoria’s Secret boarded up. Display windows at Ann Taylor’s Loft emptied. The windows taped in X patterns at businesses like Royal Cleaners, Mrs. Green’s, Cargo Bay and many more. Food purveyors like Colony Grill, The Shack and Dairy Queen still open for business. The latter had the message “Good Night Irene” scrawled across its front window. Many stores displaying small handwritten signs saying, “Sorry, closed early due to weather.”

Roger Ludlowe Middle School, site of official shelters for both humans and pets
The following rooms were repurposed for human and animal usage and being coordinated through a combined effort between the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the Medical Reserve Corps….

Choral Room – a dedicated movie room.
Cafeteria – Registration and dining area wherein pizza was being served
Band Rehearsal Room – Infirmary with several cots
Auto Shop – Pet shelter with several occupied pet carriers.
Gym – Shelter for some 50 people at the 11 p.m. hour

Interviewed at the gym shelter was the Oliveira family, who maintain a home near the train station. They had checked in at around 8 a.m., afraid of trees falling on their home, especially in the middle of the night. Said the family matriarch, Rita, “This is very comfortable, with good food and board games for the kids. I have no complaints.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Beach Area residents weigh the evacuation question as Hurricane Irene nears
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 8/27)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – “I’m not happy about being told to leave,” said Jeff Seymour, standing on the porch of his Beach Area home at 91 Quincy Street, referring to a Fairfield Police mandate that he evacuate his residence and move to higher ground.

He was among 500 or so homeowners in the Beach Area that had either been ordered to leave or encouraged to leave in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Irene, a Category 1 marauder tearing a path along the coast of North Carolina and sprinting north. It was a question many were struggling with – retreat to safety or take one’s chances and stick it out at the old homestead, there to monitor, mend and react to the storm’s assault.

“I want to keep an eye on things,” said Seymour, recalling earlier battles with like storms. “I think it was ’92 when we had the last bad storm, which brought a lot of water. We weathered that and were fine. I expect water will come up Penfield. Maybe it will go in the basement. I learned a long time ago not to put valuables in the basement. Back in ’92, I had to wade through water from town, but the house was fine. This time, we’re going to my brother’s house in Stratfield.”

Seymour’s next door neighbor, John Guor, a landscaper with New England Nurseries, said he was planning to evacuate, too, by 4 p.m., headed over to his other house on School Street. “Right now I’m cleaning all my chainsaws, chippers, stump grinders, cherry pickers – all that. I expect to be very busy.”

Before setting into what promises to be a long slog of work and endless hours of tree, branch and other debris removal, Guor had plans to blow off some steam. “At 5 tonight, I’ll be at a hurricane party in Trumbull, with about 50 friends. We’ll have a disco ball and karaoke machine… the works!”

Over at 259 Edward Street – that thoroughfare being the official line which marked the mandatory evacs from the recommended evacs, homeowner Mini Zacchia had decided to stick around, joined by her elementary school aged daughters Brittany and Ashley. “I expect water damage and have prepared for it as best as possible,” she said. “I’m expecting power to be out, too. We have a generator as back-up. My biggest concern is if the seawall breaks and we have a continuous flow of water through the back of the property into the house.”

Dining on McDonald’s hamburgers under the shelter of the back hatch door of their SUV, idling in the parking lot at Penfield Beach, was Paul Mason and his daughter, Izzy, 4. “I took care of everything at home (Merwin’s Lane in Greenfield Hill), got us some lunch and are burning off some energy in case we get stuck for a couple days,” he shared.

Around the other side of the Pavilion, on its front deck actually, Ellen Leaf Schaper of Eastlawn and Susan Holzner of Fairview Avenue, and their children Alexandra and Livia, respectively, sat in beach chairs looking out at the ocean. Behind them, the windows and doors of the newly constructed building were boarded up with plywood.

“I’m in a mandatory evacuation zone,” said Schaper, with regard to her residence, “but I haven’t left yet. I’m monitoring the weather, right on the oceanfront.”

Walking right along the water’s edge was Eileen Grant, her daughter Abby and Abby’s friend Margaret Telling. Eileen held a large umbrella over them, to fend off sporadic raindrops. “We’re just taking a beach stroll, after having just purchased a generator from Home Depot,” she said. Eileen added that she and her daughter had decided to stay in their home – despite the tempting offer of rosemary chicken at the Telling’s Walbin Court (by Riverfield School) home.

Down Penfield Beach walking west, Dave Nadolny was rolling up a portable pool at the back of a Fairfield Beach home belonging to the Bernstein family. Said the senior Bernstein, “We have a reservation at the Trumbull Marriott. We’re going to be on vacation. We’ll hit the gym, pool and go out to dinner.”

A real standout on the beach, Tim Scanlon, from Sarasota, Florida, in the beach area visiting a friend, was flying a Best Waroo 15 meter kiteboarding kite. “I’m a kiteboarder hoping the wind will cooperate more than it has,” he said. “I’m essentially testing the wind currents before boarding.”

Making their way along the sand in the opposite direction was Lisa Moore and Perry Kourembanas. Each clutched a bottle of wine in their hands. “We just came from ‘That’s the Spirit’ and are headed home to pack up and go to higher ground,” said Kourembanas.

Shovels in hand by the kayak racks at Penfield, Fairfield Museum and History Center staff Walt Matis and Michael Jehle were loading sand into trashbags to form what Jehle referred to as ‘ghetto sandbags’, aiming to place them around the bottom of the doors of the museum facility, to try and prevent water flowing in. “Our mission is to protect the town’s history,” said Jehle.

Bopping along from the direction of the swings at Penfield were Lily Smith, 14, and Sydney Andrews, 13. “We wanted to see if it was ‘wavy’,” said Sydney, coining a new storm-related phrase. “It’s not as bad as we thought,” she concluded.

A few blocks away, just on the cusp of the Beach Area, Mo’s Wine & Spirits at 953 Post Road, was doing brisk business purveying spirits to the masses. Emerging from the store with a 12-pack of Shock Top beer in hand, Krystal Marin, an employee of Sweet Rexie’s in downtown, said she was headed to a friend’s place in New Haven. “I live in West Haven, on the beach. New Haven is a little safer,” she said.

Running the show inside, “Red” Hutchinson said store traffic had been “way up” since Thursday. “Dark and Stormies and ice have been really popular. A lot of people are evacuating from the beach but picking up supplies as they leave.”