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After a one-two storm punch that knocked out electricity for days at a time last year, the first whispers Thursday about a hurricane heading our way had local residents scrambling to make sure they would never be without power again.
And high on their list as Hurricane Sandy pounded the Caribbean were portable generators that can power refrigerators, stoves and even whole houses just in case storms knock out electrical service early next week.
Forecasters predict the hurricane will mix with a wintry storm Tuesday morning as it makes landfall in New Jersey or New York City.
Chris Calkins, owner of Calkins Electric LLC in East Lyme, said Thursday that he had five calls for generator jobs in the previous 24 hours.
"Once people hear about a storm heading toward the Bahamas, I start getting phone calls," Calkins said. "I can predict the weather by the number of calls. I don't even have to watch The Weather Channel."
Calkins, who was without electricity himself for eight days last year, said he installed about 70 generators in 2011, when the state was hit with Tropical Storm Irene in August and with a nor'easter in October.
Calkins pointed out that for some people - such as the 93-year-old on an oxygen tank for whom he completed an installation Thursday - generators can be a necessity. But most people are simply looking to avoid the inconvenience of an extended period without heat, hot water and major appliances.
Of course, a life of convenience will cost you. A typical generator installation runs about $1,500 - $2,500 for those who haven't already purchased a generator themselves, Calkins said.
"I'll be working over the weekend," he said. "A lot of people don't call until 48 hours before (a big storm)."
Workers at local hardware stores agreed that the biggest rush for batteries, generators and other storm-related gear likely will happen Saturday. But at Cash True Value in East Lyme, at least three generators moved out the door Thursday, and customers already were stocking up on other items as well.
"The flashlight aisle is looking a little scarce," sales associate Eric Sasman said. "We've sold a lot of batteries, a lot of gas cans."
Bill Johnson Jr., a manager at Johnson's Cash True Value in Groton, said the stampede for storm-related items doesn't usually begin until a couple days before a storm is due to hit.
Kevin Schmitt, manager of the store's Taylor Rental business, said he already has received several phone calls about generators and had sold a few Thursday. But it will be hard to match last year's deluge of calls, when he had to put in three additional orders of 30 or more generators to handle the demand.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Thursday asked residents to prepare for the storm by assembling a basic emergency kit and developing a family emergency plan.
"Some (forecast) models predict that Sandy may move onshore somewhere in New England early next week," Malloy said in a statement. "Although we are not certain the storm will impact the state, we need to be prepared."
Norwich Public Utilities said Thursday that a briefing of city emergency officials by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicated the region would start feeling the impact of Hurricane Sandy sometime Sunday. But it is too early to determine the storm's exact track or severity, the utility said.
"Crews are prepared to handle whatever issues arise from this storm," John Bilda, NPU general manager, said in a statement.
A spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power Co., which was buffeted by severe criticism over delayed response times and inadequate cleanup crews during last year's storms, said the utility was moving quickly to make sure that up to 2,000 line workers from the Midwest would be in place Sunday if the hurricane barreled through the state.
"We're still closely monitoring forecasts," CL&P spokesman Mitch Gross said.
"The past year has been all about improving storm response," added Bill Quinlan, CL&P senior vice president of emergency preparedness, in a statement.
Calkins, the East Lyme electrician, said response times would be helped if all the do-it-yourselfers who try to hook up generators either learned the proper method or hired licensed professionals. He said - and CL&P spokesman Gross confirmed - that some workers had to go house-to-house disconnecting improperly installed generators that could have electrocuted linemen because of "back feed" caused by the failure to install a transfer switch.
"It could be extremely dangerous," Gross said. "An improperly installed generator could injure or kill a line worker. ... In some places (last year), we had to shut down our trucks and listen for the generators."
• Flashlights with spare batteries
• A battery-operated radio or TV
• First-aid kit and medications
• Canned, freeze-dried or dehydrated foods
• A manual can opener
• Bottled water
• Baby or pet supplies (if needed)
• Important phone numbers
• A whistle to signal for help
• Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
• Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
• Local maps
• Cellphone with chargers, inverter or solar charger
Family emergency plan
• Identify an out-of-town contact in case town communication is disrupted
• Make sure family members have each other's phone numbers, cellphones and emergency contacts. List important contacts under the acronym ICE (In Case of Emergency)
• Teach family how to use text messaging
• Subscribe to alert services such as www.ct.gov/ctalert
• For more information, visit ct.gov/hurricane
Sources: CL&P, State of Connecticut