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Norwich — A lingering storm surprised the Norwich area on Thursday with more than 5 inches of rain, leading to flash floods that stranded motorists, closed roads and forced some from their homes.
The torrential rainfall started mid-afternoon. That's when Yantic Fire Chief Frank Blanchard said he received the first of what would be many calls, this one from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in the industrial park.
VFW permittee Bob Murphy said he was checking the cash drawers behind the bar when water inundated outside drains and started lapping at the front and back doors.
"Within five minutes there was 3 inches of water in here — behind the bar, down the hallway and into the office," Murphy said.
Flooding on the surrounding roadways of Norwichtown quickly followed as rain continued to fall in sheets.
Blanchard, who called in help from the Taftville and East Great Plain fire departments, said firefighters were called out to West Town Street in the area of the bowling alley to pull four people from their vehicles.
Bill Shishmanian was at a stoplight off West Town Street, looking to cross onto the Interstate 395 on ramp when he turned to see the water approaching.
"There's literally a river coming down the street," Shishmanian said. "It was really something I've never seen before and never want to see again."
Shishmanian, who said the water was coming from the area of Plain Hill Road, said he turned and took an alternative route.
Water quickly flooded the West Town Street area and by 3:30 p.m. had filled gas station parking lots and forced the closure of the ramps leading to I-395.
"This is the epitome of flash flooding," Emergency Management Director Gene Arters said. "Really all you can do at this point is to protect life."
The City of Norwich used a reverse 911 system to alert residents by phone to stay off city streets if at all possible.
Norwich Public Utilities said they were forced to cut power to 10 residences and businesses in the lower Case Street area. Those buildings will need to be inspected by the building department before power is reconnected, according to a statement from NPU.
The building official also was called out to inspect two homes on Plain Hill Road whose foundations were exposed by cascading water. The residents were evacuated temporarily to the Yantic fire station, and the American Red Cross was called in to help them with emergency needs.
Kelly Middle School on Mahan Drive was opened as an overnight emergency shelter for residents displaced by flooding.
Water covered the roadways on Wawecus Street near the railroad bridge overpass, along West Town Street near Norwich Tire and on Huntington Avenue at the bottom of Plain Hill Road, said Angelo Yeitz, superintendent of the Streets and Parks Division of Public Works.
Flooding also occurred in low spots on Hansen and White Plains roads, where logs from a tree-cutting operation were floating in the roadway.
Meanwhile, The William W. Backus Hospital shuttered its Case Street facility, where more than a dozen cars sat in 4 feet of water.
"It came up so fast they couldn't get in their vehicles fast enough to move them," Blanchard said.
National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Hofmann said a narrow but intense band of rain stalled over an area extending from Franklin to Ledyard. Norwich took the brunt of the rain while some surrounding towns remained nearly dry.
Weather Service rainfall estimates at 8 p.m. showed 5.25 inches in Norwich, 3.17 inches in the Oakdale area and just trace amounts in Groton.
Hofmann said moisture was being sucked into the stalled front from over Long Island Sound — something long-range computer models can't predict.
"It's really this just one spot where these dynamics came together," Hofmann said. "It's localized. Where it's been raining, it's been raining very hard, creating potentially life-threatening situations."
Montville also experienced heavy rains, according to fire Marshal Ray Occhialini, which led to some temporary road closures and flooded basements. The problems were mostly contained to the area of Route 32, Raymond Hill Road and Fitch Hill Road. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection was called to one home on Gallavan Lane with a flooded basement and a leaking 30-gallon kerosene tank.
Chances of scattered showers remained in the forecast for Thursday night. Blanchard said his department had a list of homeowners with flooded basements waiting for help. Emergency officials in Norwich planned to reopen West Town Street later Thursday evening as the water receded but planned to keep a close eye on the Yantic River, which traditionally floods in the same area where the flash floods occurred.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy issued a statement Thursday cautioning residents in eastern Connecticut to be alert to continuing flooding conditions, especially urban and flash flooding. He said the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security was ready to coordinate any response or assistance that may be necessary.
Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.