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Woog's World / The 100-year storm: How time flies

Updated 7:42 am, Sunday, November 11, 2012
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Sandy came. She saw. She conquered.

"Hundred-year storms" seem to come with alarming frequency these days. And they come in all kinds of varieties.

There was the March 2010 windstorm. Trees toppled onto houses. Power lines danced across streets. Schools were closed for days.

That winter, a series of snowfalls introduced Westporters to implements like "roof rakes." Week after week, with numbing relentlessness, the snows came. One dumped more white stuff on Westport than we'd ever seen at once. When another produced "just" eight inches, we called it a dusting.

A year ago August, Irene slammed ashore. It was a tropical storm -- not a hurricane -- but don't tell that to the thousands of Westporters without power for days. Or the residents of Compo Beach who lost not only basements and cars, but the fall leaves on their trees. Salt water does that, we learned.

Just two months later, a freak Halloween snowstorm swirled in. Coastal Connecticut fared far better than upstate -- this time. School was out for a week there. Power took even longer to restore.

And now Hurricane Sandy.

Every Westporter has a Sandy tale to tell. Massive trees blocked roads and smashed homes. (A man who lost his beloved 1960 Mercedes asked, "Why couldn't it have hit the car I don't like?") Compo Beach was once again devastated -- though a quickly erected berm probably prevented even worse damage. Saugatuck Shores -- a neighborhood that can flood in a spring breeze -- saw more water than anyone remembered.

But we did not get hit as badly as New Jersey, Staten Island or Breezy Point. Or even Fairfield.

What should we make of all this?

Well, as bad as things got, we were still far better off than many folks. An impressive number of Westporters own generators (I'm betting the number will rise quickly in coming weeks). Most Americans can't afford that luxury.

Those with power -- whether generated by CL&P or generators -- were extremely generous. They offered their homes, offices and places of business as sanctuaries. Friends and strangers crowded in to get warm, use internet, charge devices and stay connected -- spiritually as well as electronically.

"What do you need? How can I help?" were questions asked often, and earnestly. The responses ranged from the practical -- "Do you have a chainsaw?" "Can I borrow your cell?" -- to the mundane ("Give me a hug"). People reaching out to neighbors they'd never talked to -- and teenagers volunteering to help elderly folks they used to look right through -- occurs often in crises. The shelf life is short; we soon go back to being our self-absorbed selves. But that doesn't make it any less important when it happens.

Some institutions that we believe are unshakeable parts of Westport were shaken to their cores. The Black Duck nearly drowned -- and the Westport Weston Family Y did. The Y's move to Mahackeno has been controversial (which is like saying "Hurricane Sandy brought some wind"), but Y officials always maintained that the downtown building was too old, outmoded, poorly constructed and difficult to maintain.

When 20 feet of river water rushed in -- knocking out the basement electrical systems, demolishing the childcare center, even buckling the basketball floor -- their assertions proved true.

For the first time in memory the Y -- which opens its doors to the community in every crisis -- was itself shuttered. If that doesn't speak volumes about Sandy's power, I can't imagine what would.

As the cleanup continues, talk turns to the frequency of these "100-year storms." Scientists say they'll continue -- perhaps even increase in ferocity. We may have to rename them. More importantly, we may have to accept them as the new normal.

There may not be much we can do about them, short of an all-out, global recognition that climate change is real, and perhaps at a tipping point.

But one thing we can do is look around. The trees we've come to admire and adore are, in many ways, killing us. Or at least falling down at an alarming rate.

Much of Westport's new residential construction begins with clear-cutting. New homes are built surrounded by grass, not trees. Those homes fare best in storms like these.

We may need to embark on a discussion of how many trees are enough, how many are too much. But who is to know which trees will fall? In each storm enormous oaks and maples topple, while saplings survive.

So when the next storm comes, we hope we'll be prepared with batteries and water (or a generator). Unfortunately, odds are it will come a lot sooner than 100 years.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.