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Sandy may be gone, but hazards are not

Published 9:49 pm, Tuesday, October 30, 2012
  • Westport officials -- from left, Deputy Fire Chief Robert Kepchar, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Police Chief Dale Call -- talk Tuesday about local recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Paul Schott

    Westport officials -- from left, Deputy Fire Chief Robert Kepchar, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Police Chief Dale Call -- talk Tuesday about local recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy.

    Photo: Paul Schott

 

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Hours after Westport endured arguably the worst storm since the 1938 "Long Island Express" hurricane, town officials urged residents during a briefing Tuesday afternoon to take safety precautions during the storm's aftermath and prepare for lengthy power outages.

"It's devastating -- it's a lot of water and a lot of sand," First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said of a tour he took Tuesday of the Compo Beach neighborhood. "To go back and see that scene, it's something you don't want to contemplate."

No serious injuries were reported Monday night or early Tuesday morning during the storm's peak, but Sandy left a battered landscape throughout town in its wake. The hurricane demolished the 10-foot sand berm built last week across Compo Beach and lifted up portions of the beach's boardwalk "like an accordion," according to Joseloff.

The first selectman also reported that the storm smashed through a brick wall between the beach's boardwalk and bathhouses and also damaged a wall at the Longshore Sailing School.

Despite its dissipation, Joseloff credited the Compo Beach sand wall -- a new idea tried out this year by town emergency management officials -- with saving much of the beach's walkway.

"In my career, I have not seen such devastation," Deputy Fire Chief Bob Kepchar said of Sandy's force.

During the Monday-Tuesday overnight, the storm surge peaked at approximately 12 feet, with coastal areas such as the Compo Beach neighborhood and the Saugatuck Shores section inundated with four to five feet of water, Kepchar reported. During the same period, flooding also exceeded four feet on Main Street, after the Saugatuck River overflowed.

To bolster the town's emergency-response capacity, the National Guard sent two high-water vehicles, which were deployed at the storm's peak on Monday night and early Tuesday morning. Firefighters from other parts of the state, who brought their own vehicles, also arrived as "task forces" to help Westport first responders.

Power out

The mass power outages affecting the town comprise perhaps the greatest challenge for town officials and the town's utility, Connecticut Light & Power in the days ahead. At 5 p.m. Tuesday, about 12,400 CL&P customers -- 85 percent of all the utility's clients in Westport -- still did not have not power. Town emergency management officials have warned residents that power restoration in their homes may take seven to 10 days.

Joseloff lambasted the utility's response to Sandy's impact, mirroring the withering criticism leveled at CL&P by town and state officials last year after Tropical Storm Irene hit the shoreline.

"I am appallingly disappointed by CL&P's response think we had one line crew this morning," Joseloff said. "We just can't move trees and wires unless they're certified dead. Somehow, I'd hoped to have a better response. So far I haven't seen it. We'll have to go back to square one and see how we can do better."

Deputy Fire Chief Bob Kepchar also highlighted the difficulty of repairing power lines.

What I'm more concerned about is what happens when the power is restored," he said. "We have a lot of water damage. We have water in electrical fixtures, water in wiring and that all has to be inspected by CL&P and our crews, before power is turned on.

When power returns, residents should monitor their homes closely and call 911 if they smell smoke or nothing anything "unusual," Kepchar recommended.

Other challenges

Town emergency management officials are also grappling with dozens of roads blocked off by fallen trees and down power lines. Making the roads passable again constitutes a top priority for Westport police, said Chief Dale Call.

"One of the biggest problems we run into and one of the things we try to do is get our roadways open," he said. "Life goes on -- people still have to get to work, get to stores and doctors' appointments. It's a big part of getting back to normalcy when you can at least go about your business safely."

Call and Kepchar urged residents to obey police tape lines and not to try to clear streets of debris.

"Pay close attention to pooling water that can be around wires that are energized and trees that are fallen," Kepchar said. "Don't take it into your own hands. Let us do our work."

Meanwhile, Westport schools were closed an additional day -- Wednesday -- with a decision not made at that point on the rest of week, Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon announced Tuesday afternoon.

The town's emergency shelter at Long Lots Elementary School will be open Tuesday night, and town officials may keep it open longer depending on need.

The Westport Public Library re-opened Tuesday afternoon and Town Hall is also open for the charging of electronic devices.

Joseloff added that "it is too early to tell" about the cost of Sandy's damage in town, but expressed hope that the town would receive some reimbursement from the federal government.

"I think what we learned from last year was that it's going to take a long time to recover," Joseloff added. "People may get very antsy and very fidget, but they have to understand the magnitude of what we've gone through. This is worse than Irene last year."

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott