After Irene, Westport grapples with cleanup, outages
Updated 2:24 pm, Wednesday, August 31, 2011
On Monday morning in the Saugatuck Shores section of Westport, Mark Altschuler's colonial house on Pebble Beach Lane stood intact. Scattered near the home, though, were clues of the battering it endured 24 hours earlier from Tropical Storm Irene. A shallow pool of water enveloped a stretch of the street. Several yards away, a pair of wooden ties used for landscaping in Altschuler's backyard had washed up on a neighbor's front lawn.
Inspecting the white fence running along his driveway, Altschuler pointed out more evidence of Irene's wrath.
"This is the water mark, almost three feet high," he said, pointing to a messy, dark line that streaked across the fence. "We've been here six years, but this storm is far and away the worst in terms of the water level."
The altered landscape around Altschuler's home revealed a small piece of the damage inflicted last weekend on Westport by the tropical storm. Heavy rainfall on Saturday night continued into Sunday morning, propelled by lashing winds and storm surges that breached many low-lying sections along Long Island Sound and the Saugatuck River.
Local officials report that the storm did not claim any lives or cause any major injuries, but many Westport homeowners and merchants incurred substantial property damage and the town faces the prospect of prolonged power outages.
After evacuating with his wife, Lori, to a hotel in Stamford on Saturday night, Altschuler returned Sunday afternoon to find his property engulfed in water from the Sound that had rushed over a sea wall on Harbor Road and then down Pebble Beach Lane.
"I was stunned, the backyard was totally submerged," he added. "It was like a river effect. The water knows no boundaries."
The overflow seeped into Altschuler's garage, and also left a quarter-inch deposit inside the house. But after an intense cleanup effort on Sunday with Lori, his son, David, and his sister-in-law, Lynn, all of the downstairs hardwood floors were visible again Monday.
"We mopped everything up, there was kind of a disgusting sludge in the garage -- we got it all," he said. "I really feel very fortunate," he said. "The damage was not really that severe."
As he walked around his home, Altschuler looked over lawn furniture and rugs laid out to dry on the patio and other household items that were stacked neatly in the garage. He was still without power Monday, but he said he was encouraged by the improvement in his home's post-storm condition.
"I was a little bummed out yesterday, but I feel better now," he said. "It actually looks pretty good now."
About a half-mile away, Carol Simpson's house on Norport Drive endured more limited ground-floor flooding. She returned Monday morning after spending several nights with her daughter and son-in-law at their home on higher ground in Fairfield.
As she surveyed her back yard, which faces an inlet of Long Island Sound, she picked up several large branches strewn on the grass. Simpson said that Irene had equaled the strength of the 1992 Nor'easter that struck town.
"Westport definitely took a hit," she said. "We old-timers are used to this. There's a little flooding, but I can live with that."
Throughout town, other Westport residents showed a quiet resolve to resume their daily routines.
At her home on Soundview Drive next to Compo Beach, Gail Cunningham Coen used a hose to cleanse her garden plants and shrubs of Long Island Sound salt water. During the storm, the Sound surged over the sea wall on Soundview Drive and onto Cunningham Coen's lawn.
"When you live near the water, you're used to getting wet. It's like living on a ship," said the lifelong Soundview Drive resident. "But you pick up and start again."
In the town center, several businesses had already re-opened by midday Monday.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said in a statement the same day that power had been restored to most of the downtown area, including the town's public library, but acknowledged that outages elsewhere still presented substantial problems for the town.
By early Tuesday, about 35 percent of the town's Connecticut Light & Power customers -- or 4,376 -- remained without electricity. At the peak of the storm, about three-quarters of the town was in the dark.
"Everyone wants to know how long [it will take to restore power] ... and the best answer is count on days or a week or more. Obviously if it can be done sooner it will," Joseloff said. "But we are among hundreds of thousands in the state without power."
Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury said Tuesday that the town would apply for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover storm expenses such as damage to town property and town employee overtime.
Kingsbury estimated that Irene's impact would cost less than the $400,000 bill incurred by the town for a March 2010 Nor'easter. The town recouped from FEMA about 75 percent of its expenses for that storm, he added.
Irene's impact also pushed back the start of the new academic year for Westport public schools, which will now begin on Wednesday.
On Monday afternoon, Joseloff and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, toured the Compo Beach neighborhood to survey the damage and to talk with residents affected by the storm.
"There's a similar theme in all of the towns in the district, and I suspect in Connecticut, and that's people without power," Himes said. "It's going to be really important that UI and CL&P really distinguish themselves in the next couple of days in restoring that. It's not just the inconvenience of not having power; it's people using candles at night which creates a danger."
Walking down Soundview Drive, Himes and Joseloff stopped for a brief conversation with Teri Klein, who returned Monday morning to her home on Danbury Avenue, which intersects Soundview. Klein evacuated before the storm to her daughter's home in New Haven. She said that her residence had not suffered major flooding.
"Did you lose power?" Joseloff asked.
"Oh yeah, everybody lost power," she replied.
"Teri, what do you know about your neighbors? Did they leave too or did they stay?"
"Some people left, some people stayed," she said. "Us old-timers left, but everybody's o.k."
"That's the important thing," Joseloff said.
Kingsbury and Deputy Fire Chief Jon Gottfried also joined Himes and Joseloff on the waterfront walk. The group stopped periodically to scrutinize cracked and collapsed sections of the sea wall on Soundview Drive.
Himes and Joseloff spoke with several more Compo Beach area residents before concluding their tour on Norwalk Avenue. After the public officials departed, Randi Sosnowitz stood outside her home on the same street. She peered at a sewage drain a few yards away, which she said had overflowed during the storm.
"That was where the water came from," she said. "And that water came into my back yard and into the garage. The town's known about that drain for years and they should've fixed it. There's no excuse for that."
Aside from the garage, she reported that her house had escaped flooding, which she attributed to its raised structure and flood flaps. Looking up the street toward the Sound, the 15-year Compo Beach neighborhood resident paused for a beat before she offered a final comment about Tropical Storm Irene.
"I'm OK," she said with a smile. "I feel very lucky."