Published October 29. 2012 4:00AM Updated October 29. 2012 10:26AM
As the region braced for a storm nearing the magnitude of the Great Hurricane of 1938, area communities on Sunday declared mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas, canceled school for the next two days and opened emergency shelters to welcome the first of what are expected to be large numbers of evacuees.
Hurricane Sandy is expected to hit today, and it isn't in any hurry to leave. The worst part of the storm in southeastern Connecticut will be winds gusting up to 80 mph on the shoreline, a situation that could lead to the closure of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge for up to a day and a half starting this morning, emergency officials said.
AccuWeather meteorologist Mark Paquette said the region will feel Sandy's effects throughout today and much of Tuesday. Complicating matters will be a storm surge of up to seven feet during unusually high tides that will cause flooding on the coastline and along rivers and other low-lying areas.
"This isn't a normal hurricane; it's a hybrid system," Paquette said. "It's like a nor'easter on steroids."
Hurricane Sandy is expected to make landfall in New Jersey today, with winds extending as far as 500 miles north and east from the center of the storm.
A high wind warning is in place from 6 a.m. today through 6 p.m. Tuesday. Emergency officials said winds above 40 mph could lead Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to order the closure of the Interstate 95 bridge between Groton and New London, because of the risk posed to trucks, ambulances and campers that are known to be flipped over by strong winds on high bridges such as the Gold Star.
If the Gold Star closes, motorists will likely be directed to cross the Thames River over the Mohegan-Pequot Bridge between Montville and Ledyard, officials said.
Paquette predicted the region will experience 2 to 4 inches of rain during a 48-hour period starting today, and local officials are bracing for severe flooding and damage to shoreline homes. Sustained winds of 50 mph also will wreak havoc by downing power lines and causing widespread outages that may take some time to fix, Paquette said.
"The difference with Sandy versus other strong hurricanes in the past is that Sandy is very large, moving very slowly and her angle of approach is toward the northwest and west," Gary Conte, warning coordination meteorologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather service, said during a Norwich weather briefing Sunday. "We're on the drier side of the storm, but with the highest winds and greatest storm surge."
Emergency officials advised people in flood-prone areas to get out of their homes as soon as possible, because there are no guarantees of a rescue at the height of a storm.
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said Sunday that storm surges are expected to be 2 to 4 feet higher than those in the Hurricane of 1938.
"I am concerned as mayor of this city that many residents are not taking this as seriously as they should," he said.
He added that the surges are expected to be "more frequent, more sustaining than any storm we've ever experienced here in New London."
Joseph Sastre, director of emergency management for the Town of Groton, said he has heard predictions of a 6- to 7-foot storm surge above the normal high tides, which are already higher than usual because of the effects of a full moon. Each high tide will be worse than the last during three consecutive high-tide cycles as the storm hits, he said.
"We could see flooding in excess of what we saw in 1938," Sastre said.
During the 1938 hurricane, dozens of homes that once lined Ocean Beach in New London were washed out to sea, and a whole row of cottages at Hawks Nest Beach in Old Lyme were destroyed. In Westerly alone, about 100 people lost their lives during the hurricane, and about 700 were estimated to have perished along the hurricane's path from Maryland to Maine.
As much damage as Hurricane Sandy might cause in this region, Fairfield and New Haven counties were expected to fare much worse by being belted with more rain than the southeastern part of the state is likely to see, emergency officials said.
Gov. Malloy spent much of his day updating emergency personnel across the state about storm preparations. He also ordered all non-essential state personnel to stay home today and extended the state's voter-registration deadline to 8 p.m. Thursday, allowing people wanting to vote in next month's presidential election an extra two days to sign up in recognition that many town halls will be closed today and Tuesday.
Malloy also requested Sunday that President Barack Obama declare a pre-landfall state of emergency in Connecticut to speed federal aid after Hurricane Sandy passes through the state.
"As the hours go by, we are more and more certain that Hurricane Sandy will have a substantial impact on our state," Malloy said.
Amtrak canceled service throughout much of the Northeast today, and airlines across the nation grounded more than 5,000 flights. Lawrence & Memorial Hospital canceled all elective surgeries today and said its physicians' offices also would be closed.
Connecticut's court system also was taking the day off today.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Sunday it is monitoring its system of flood risk management projects in New England that includes five hurricane barriers. The Corps can close or reduce water flow at its network of 35 dams to help reduce flood damage, a system that it says has already meant property-damage prevention of more than $6.6 billion, versus a cost of $538 million to build.
In Norwich, the city Emergency Management Director Gene Arters called for a voluntary evacuation of all mobile home parks and flood-prone residences after 2 p.m. today, when the city's emergency shelter at Kelly Middle School opens.
Last winter's completion of the $40 million renovation to the Kelly Middle School included preparing the building to serve as the city's new emergency shelter.
Plan on days with no power
"People should plan to be out of power for two to three days, just as a rule of thumb," Mike Hughes, Norwich Public Utilities communications manager, said Sunday.
Public schools in the region all planned to cancel classes both today and Tuesday, while Mitchell College, Connecticut College and Three Rivers Community College are also closed. Trash service was being suspended in many towns, for as many as three days.
Many towns were handling their own evacuees, but East Lyme opened up its middle school to residents of several different municipalities, including Waterford, Old Lyme, New London and Montville. East Lyme High School also was being prepared as an evacuation site, in case of an overflow.
Residents of shoreline communities in Old Lyme and Stonington were told to evacuate their homes Sunday afternoon, while other communities, such as Waterford, initially called for voluntary evacuations and then decided to make them mandatory.
At Sound View Beach in Old Lyme, Lennie Corto, owner of Lennies on the Beach, said the neighborhood had already flooded Sunday, even before the storm started, due to the astronomical high tide.
"We had (Tropical Storm) Irene, and Irene taught us a lot," Corto said. "So Round 2, we know what to do."
Corto flew a hurricane flag - red with a black square - from a telephone pole near the beachfront bar at the end of Hartford Avenue. He boarded up the windows of the beachfront bar, piled sandbags around the patio and made a sand barrier in an effort to divert the incoming water from the building.
Farther down the beach, John Rondinone of Wethersfield and his son, John Jr., were shoveling sand into sandbags in an effort to protect their summer home on nearby Pond Road from what town officials said would likely be "catastrophic flooding."
"We sandbagged our basement and walkway to the deck and I think we're going to board up the front windows," Rondinone said.
He said he and his son would be heeding the mandatory evacuation order and getting out of town.
"I'd stay, but this time, I'm afraid of the flooding," he said.
Day Staff Writers Karen Florin and Kimberly Drelich contributed to this story.