Turning the tide on Irene: Town gets back to routines
Updated 5:32 pm, Thursday, September 1, 2011
Three days after Tropical Storm Irene left Westport reeling, the town bustled with clean-up and repair operations.
Connecticut Light & Power and Department of Public Works crews teamed to remove trees tangled in power lines, while personnel from phone and Internet service providers worked to repair broken utility equipment.
Thousands of residents, however, still had no power by Wednesday evening. In response, many sought refuge at institutions such as the Westport Weston Family Y and the Westport Public Library to resume their daily work and recreational routines.
But signs of life-as-usual also were evident: The new year for Westport schools, initially scheduled for Tuesday, got under way Thursday, and the town's beaches were reopened for swimming Wednesday for the first time since the weekend.
Following are post-Irene scenarios as Westport worked its way back to normalcy.
Safe port in the storm
As she sized up her jump shot, Claudia Serino had a clear view of the basket. She bounced the ball a couple of times, looked up, and flung her arms forward. The ball dropped inches short of the rim.
"A little higher next time, Claudia," said her aunt, Jane Williamson. "Aim for the backboard."
After her aunt passed the ball back to her, Serino, 12, planted her feet again and took another shot. This time, the ball arced a little higher, but careened off the rim.
"You can make this shot," Williamson said. "You were making them before. Remember, aim for the backboard."
On her third attempt, Serino bent her knees more and finished her shot with a longer follow-through motion. The ball banked off the square of the backboard into the basket.
Williamson clapped to recognize the shot. "There you go! I knew you could make it!"
Serino flashed a broad smile as she ran to retrieve the ball.
The shoot-around under the bright lights of the Westport Weston Family Y's gym in downtown Westport was a respite from the onslaught of Tropical Storm Irene for Serino and Williamson. Serino's home in Weston has been without power or running water since Saturday night.
"It's one thing not to have electricity, it's another not to have water," said Williamson, a resident of Pinehurst, N.C., who had arrived for a visit last week. "That what's you miss -- not having water."
Serino nodded in agreement.
"You can't take a shower, you can't wash your face, it's hard to brush your teeth," she said.
Along with more than 200 fellow refugees from Irene on Tuesday, Serino and Williamson took advantage of the Y's offer to non-members for free use of its downtown facilities to take hot showers, work out and recuperate after the storm.
"I'm coming back tonight!" said Williamson, a personal trainer. "I like the sauna, and I was surprised how new the equipment was and how clean it was. "Now that I found this gym I may stay longer!"
Serino said the trip to the Y also proved useful for ordinary, but important, tasks such as charging her cell phone. The lack of power at home, she added, complicated other tasks, such as completing summer assignments in preparation for the new school year. She will start seventh grade next week at Hopkins School in New Haven.
"I've had to do homework by candlelight, and that's not working out so well at nighttime," she said. "It's been a stressful weekend, but they've been so accommodating here."
But the storm's impact had not had an entirely unhappy outcome. Amid the darkness in Weston last weekend, Williamson said she had forged a closer bond with Serino and her older sister, whom she said she had not seen in 10 years before her visit.
"We played cards, and a lot of games we hadn't played before. It was like `Little House on the Prairie,' " Williamson said, as she looked at her niece."To have us all together, even though it was kind of scary, it made it very memorable."
Library offers refuge, reconnection
By Tuesday afternoon, Sam Somashekar's Samsung laptop was fully charged. With his HTC smartphone also plugged in, he had set up a makeshift office at a table in the Westport Public Library.
"I was here first thing. For my work, I really need to be online" said the vice president of marketing and business development at Kaavo, an Internet cloud management software company. "It's not perfect, but I can get some work done here."
Still without power at his Wilton Road home, Somashekar said he hoped there would have been better communication from CL&P about power restoration efforts.
"I just wish CL&P would be more open and give us an update on how close they are to restoring power," he said. "If we're not going to get it soon, then we can plan for that."
Throughout the library, dozens of others also sat in front of their laptops linked in to the WiFi service there. In the library entrance and its cafe, chatter abounded about power outages triggered over the weekend by Irene.
On the library patio overlooking the Saugatuck River, Fred and Janet Plotkin used Wednesday's bright sunlight to read hard-copy titles. Janet Plotkin read "Mornings in Jenin" by Susan Abulhawa, while her husband chose Michael Connelly's "Lost Light."
Their home, meanwhile, still had no power or running water.
"We have no Internet, no [kitchen] range, no water," Fred Plotkin said. "Life is miserable."
He added that he also had not received any post-storm communication from CL&P.
"Living like this stopped being an adventure after a day," added Janet Plotkin, with a wry smile. "I don't know how Abe Lincoln did it."
A big job
The team was deployed to hook up a portable generator to a VRAD box attached to a utility pole planted on the side of the road. Until CL&P restored permanent power to the fixture, the generator would allow the VRAD to provide Internet, phone and video service to AT&T customers in the area.
"Everything's trying to grab the power," said Ingersoll, a splicer, as he scrutinized the VRAD. "It's drawing too much power and tripping the circuit breakers."
Each VRAD has a battery backup pack, allowing it to function temporarily after electricity is cut. But the battery expired before the AT&T crew arrived, causing it to draw too much amperage from the generator.
"Usually we can get to a VRAD in a couple of days when they still have some life in them," explained Champagne, also a splicer. "Usually we don't have to deal with this widespread a power outage. This time, we've had to go to multiple spots in every town."
As an alternative, the trio connected the VRAD to a more powerful generator in their truck. The power demands of the VRAD also tripped the truck generator's circuit breakers.
Dalton, a digital electronics technician, looked inside the VRAD, searching for an alternate solution. To allow the VRAD to charge at a slower rate, he pulled out one of the VRAD's rectifiers, which convert the generator's alternating current to direct current.
With this adjustment, the truck generator's circuit breakers no longer tripped. After a short charge on the vehicle's generator, the crew would soon be able to reconnect the VRAD to the portable generator without overwhelming that apparatus.
After finishing their assignment on Wilton Road, the trio still had to install five other portable generators around Westport. Working mandatory 12-hour days since the storm struck, they had been shuttling around the state, working Monday in Stamford and Tuesday in Milford.
"You just need to have patience," Dalton said. "We had a really big outage, and there're only so many of us to fix it. But everyone's all in with this. Wherever we're needed, that's where we'll go next."