Irene turns out the lights

The storm surge associated with Irene swells the Thames River and floods the Cross Sound Ferry parking lot on Water Street in New London Sunday.
The storm surge associated with Irene swells the Thames River and floods the Cross Sound Ferry parking lot on Water Street in New London Sunday.

Irene may have been downgraded to tropical storm status before it howled into Connecticut early Sunday, but for those who encountered flooded roads, downed wires and tree damage and are today still without power, the storm's weakened status may provide little comfort.

The storm, which passed through North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane but arrived in Connecticut as a tropical storm, caused the largest electrical outage in state history. Every single Connecticut Light & Power customer in the towns of Griswold, Lyme, North Stonington, Old Lyme and Salem were without electricity Sunday night. The utility said it could be a week or more before power is restored to more than 770,000 customers.

It remained unclear Sunday night whether power outages would affect the start of school locally. New London schools Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer said he had not yet had an opportunity to assess damage but still expected the first day of school to be Wednesday. School offices will be closed today.

In East Lyme, Superintendent of Schools James Lombardo said he would make a decision today on whether or not schools will open as scheduled Tuesday. None of the schools were damaged during the storm.

"Obviously, if there are power outages, we would delay the opening of school," Lombardo said.

In Stonington, school Operations Manager Bill King said the system will take it day by day before deciding whether to delay Wednesday's planned opening.

The emergency shelter at the Martin Center in New London closed Sunday afternoon after the 60 or so people who had taken refuge there left, said Reid Burdick, the city's emergency management director.

But the regional shelter at East Lyme Middle School, which served residents of Lyme, Old Lyme, East Lyme and Waterford, remained open with about 70 people planning on spending the night there Sunday, said East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica. Stonington's shelter at the high school also remained open.

Amtrak announced late Sunday that all service between Boston and Philadelphia remains canceled today due to debris on the tracks, flooding and power problems.

Shore Line East trains will not run in the morning, though afternoon service is expected.

The hurricane that wasn't

Rainfall in Groton was predicted to be 4 to 6 inches, but in the end, Irene brought only 2½ inches of rain, according to Nick Uhlman, a meteorologist at the Weather Center at Western Connecticut State University.

The Weather Center doesn't collect information in Old Saybrook, which urged evacuation of its beach communities before the storm, but rain totals in Chester were recorded at 5.4 inches.

And while the region was bracing for sustained winds of up to 100 miles an hour, the highest sustained winds recorded in Groton was just before 10 a.m., at 47 miles an hour, Uhlman said.

Uhlman said two factors contributed to Irene's weakening: the fact that water temperatures in the Northeast are cooler (hurricanes thrive in water 80 degrees or warmer, he said), and the fact that the storm took a more westerly path than anticipated, meaning more time on land than water.

Irene's landfall was predicted in the New Haven area but wound up just to the west of Bridgeport instead, Uhlman said.

The combination of the two factors "killed the hurricane quicker than anticipated," Uhlman said.

The pounding of Irene

Wind speed and rainfall may have been milder than expected, but the region still felt the pounding of Irene early Sunday.

The Thames River submerged City Pier, the Cross Sound Ferry parking lot and a section of Water Street in New London, where city streets were shut down to pedestrian and vehicular traffic Sunday morning. Windows shattered in other buildings downtown, including Union Station.

New London Public utilities is asking it New London and Waterford customers to restrict water use because of a temporary reduction in water capacity due to the storm. It said water quality is not impacted.

UPDATE: New London Public Utilities has lifted the water conservation request. (8/29 10:41 a.m.)

Long Island Sound washed out roads by White Sand Beach in Old Lyme and eroded sand out from under homes on West End Drive in Hawk's Nest Beach.

Old Lyme Public Works Director Ed Adanti experienced first-hand how damaging storm winds can be. Adanti was driving on Flat Rock Hill Road at 4:30 a.m. Sunday to assess tree damage when a tree - about 60 feet tall and about 10 to 12 inches in diameter - fell on his town-issued car, he said.

"I heard the crack from a tree," Adanti said. "I slowed down, and I caught it coming down and I stopped, but it still hit the roof of the car, the hood, the trunk."

Adanti was not injured and was able to get out from under the tree thanks to help from volunteer Old Lyme firefighters, who happened to be coming up the road.

"Just lucky, I guess," he said of making it out unharmed. "I'm going to start going to church."

In Pawcatuck, high winds ripped a wall off the upper two stories of the six-story Campbell Grain building on Coggswell Street at about 8:45 a.m. The massive hole on the north side of the building exposed a tangle of metal support columns inside. No one was injured but the building was condemned.

Although police and town officials across the region urged residents to stay inside Sunday, many ignored those warnings and ventured out to see the damage and waves.

At high tide Sunday, dozens of people braced themselves against the wind on the beach at Giants Neck in East Lyme, which is adjacent to Rocky Neck State Park. A half dozen teenagers cannonballed and dove off the stone jetty into a whipped-up surf, while others posed for photos with the angry seas in the background.

The water was thigh-deep on the street outside the entrance to McCook's Point Park in Niantic and shin-deep where people waded past the park gate to get to the parking lot.

Down the street, at Crescent Point, throngs of people gathered to watch the roiling waters. With Black Point road closed off a few blocks away, cars and people bottlenecked.

A man whose jet ski stalled in Niantic Bay around 5 p.m. Sunday was taken to Lawrence & Memorial Hospital with minor injuries after he climbed out of the water onto the Niantic boardwalk, according to East Lyme emergency personnel.

At Stonington Point Sunday morning, a steady stream of people walked down to the submerged parking lot to watch waves crash over the rocks. In Watch Hill, where massive waves swamped East Beach, people walked down to the water and along the road to the lighthouse.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection announced that all Connecticut State Parks, beaches and campgrounds would remain closed at least through today as it assesses damage.

Meanwhile Gov. Dannel P. Malloy directed non-essential state employees to report to work today at 10 a.m., unless their work location is without power. If, for personal storm-related reasons, non-essential state employees are unable to report to work, they may use personal leave or vacation time.

Prisons report no storm related problems

Department of Correction spokesman Brian Garnett said the state prison system weathered the storm well.

Some prisoners were moved out of low-lying buildings at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution on Saturday as a precaution, Garnett said. There was no storm damage and the prisoners have since been relocated.

 A number of facilities lost their primary power due to the storm but were kept on-line by generator, he said.

 “We were pretty much unscathed,” he said. “We’re pretty self-sufficient and did lots of planning.”

 No prisoners had to be transported to court today due to closures around the state, he said.

Pleasant weather forecasted

Uhlman, of the Weather Center, said one upside to the passing of the storm is the clear skies it leaves behind. Partly to mostly sunny skies with low humidity and temperatures in the mid to upper 70s are forecast.

"This week's going to be really nice to compensate," he said.

Staff writers Karin Crompton, Stephen Chupaska and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

j.cho@theday.com

Traffic on Main Street in Niantic was forced to navigate around this tree limb dangling from the power lines after Irene hit the region Sunday.
Traffic on Main Street in Niantic was forced to navigate around this tree limb dangling from the power lines after Irene hit the region Sunday.

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