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It's lights out for much of Connecticut in snowstorm

By Kenton Robinson and Sasha Goldstein

Publication: The Day

Published October 30. 2011 4:00AM   Updated October 30. 2011 2:22PM

New London - Southeastern Connecticut saw more rain than snow from the dreaded nor'easter Saturday, and so got off pretty easy.

The rest of the state? Not so much.

For trees already on the ropes from the slamming they'd taken from Tropical Storm Irene, the heavy, wet snow was a leaden glove delivering the knockout punch.

By 10 p.m., as the wind picked up, more than half a million customers had lost power, and 43 of the towns served by Connecticut Light & Power were black, meaning that 81 percent to 100 percent of the company's customers in those towns were in the dark, for the most part due to trees and branches toppling onto power lines.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declared a state of emergency Saturday evening as he urged residents to show patience with utilities that would likely take days to restore electricity. He said one person was killed in a traffic accident blamed on slippery conditions in Colchester, and a state trooper was injured in a separate accident.

"Residents should stay off the roads right now, let the road crews get out there and get things cleaned up," Malloy said. "Streets are dangerous, power lines are down, and we are seeing extensive tree damage with more to come as high winds enter the state. We will begin the restoration and recovery phase as soon as possible, but right now I urge Connecticut residents to stay home and stay safe."

The storm was forecast to bring up to a foot or more to central and western parts of the state before tapering off this morning.

Al Roy, a CL&P emergency management official, said more than 200 line and tree crews were working to restore power, and the utility was seeking additional help.

"As was predicted, the heavy, wet snow is weighing down the trees and creating issues across the state," Roy said.

"Our crews and support staff continue to respond as the storm moves through, and we are communicating with town and state officials to coordinate efforts."

Hardest hit were towns in the Farmington Valley and along the western and northern borders of the state.

According to CL&P, 100 percent of the customers in Simsbury, Avon, Union, Ashford, Bolton, Somers, Warren and Redding were without power as of 10 p.m.

By comparison, the hardest hit town in southeastern Connecticut was Ledyard, 22 percent at 8 p.m., but by 10 p.m. just 10 percent of customers there were without power. In Montville, the figure was 19 percent, and in Preston 15 percent.

Six customers had lost power in New London, 15 in Waterford, one in Groton and one in Stonington, CL&P reported.

For the most part, this was because the heavy snow inland gave way to rain along the coastline.

Meanwhile, Mike Hughes, communications and community outreach manager for Norwich Public Utilities, reported that sporadic outages in Norwich reported earlier in the day had been restored, and there were no outages in that city.

Not everyone was all that concerned about power, though.

Earlier Saturday in Norwich, fat, wet snowflakes drifted out of the sky onto 18-month-old Aryanna Souza's winter cap and melted on impact.

That didn't stop the baby from squealing and gesturing at the funny white stuff coming out of the sky, the first time she's been cognizant of snow, her mother Stephanie Souza said.

"Everyone wants it to go away, but I'm excited," Souza said as she wheeled her child around during a trip to find a snowsuit at a store in the Marcus Plaza on Route 82. "I want there to be enough on the ground so (Aryanna) can play in it."

If this year's winter is anything like the last, there'll be plenty of opportunities for that, but Saturday's weather is giving the region its first taste, two days before Halloween, of winter.

Marcus Plaza was bustling as residents, bundled up, shopped and then loaded their cars under a slate-gray sky filled with flakes. A sign outside the nearby Eastern Federal Bank displayed a temperature reading of 33 degrees around 2 p.m.

Temperatures dropped steadily all day, and the precipitation mirrored that drop. The day's weather began with heavy rain. Scattered snowflakes and sleet mixed in before only snow was falling. By later in the day, the snow had changed back to rain, thrown around by the wind.

Trace amounts of snow were accumulating on grassy areas in Norwich by 2:15, and trees still full of colorful, late-arriving fall foliage got a topping of white snow.

Those same trees were the subject of a warning Friday from Malloy's office. The state opened its Emergency Operations Center at the Hartford Armory at 2 p.m. Saturday, with the governor giving press conferences several times after that.

By 5 p.m., conditions were severe enough in other parts of the state that Malloy signed an order banning non-emergency vehicles from the Wilbur Cross and Merritt Parkways due to dangerous driving conditions.

"The storm is causing treacherous driving conditions down along the Merritt Parkway particularly, as well as on roadways across the state," Malloy said.

"I am urging residents to stay off the roads and let DOT crews get out there and get the streets clear. On the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways no one should be on the roads except emergency crews. People should stay inside at this point."

In Danbury, Mayor Mark Boughton ordered all drivers off local roads as of 4 p.m. because of downed limbs and dangerous conditions. He said only emergency vehicles were allowed out on the roads.

The state Department of Transportation said power loss was affecting the New Haven rail line's signal system down to New York City. It said service has been reduced from half hourly to hourly.

Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said Metro-North train service was suspended on the Port Jervis, New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches due to power problems, downed trees and slippery rail conditions.

At 8:15 p.m., Malloy announced he would hold a press conference with representatives from United Illuminating and CL&P at 8:30 this morning at the Emergency Operations Center at the State Armory in Hartford to update the media on storm recovery and restoration efforts.

k.robinson@theday.com

s.goldstein@theday.com

Associated Press reports were incorporated into this story.

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