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New London — The seven dogs were howling, but it was the crack, rumble and crash of a 30-foot oak into the roof that got Animal Control Officer Mike Martin moving.
Martin was sitting at his desk in the city’s dog pound at Bates Woods Park when the huge tree cracked near its base and came down, missing the animals and Martin but tearing a hole in the roof. Water began pouring into the building’s office.
The response brought police, fire and the public works department to 120 Chester St. around 2:15 p.m., where they assessed the damage and created a plan to remove the tree and patch the hole in the roof. As the rain continued to fall and the wind picked up speed, a second tree came crashing down, sending the workers scurrying to safety; no one was hit.
Martin arranged for Montville animal control to take the seven dogs. The damage has left the building at least temporarily unusable — and unsafe, he said. But all things considered, it was a good outcome said Billy Watkins, the public works solid waste and fleet manager.
“Houses are replaceable,” Watkins said. “Thankfully, the dogs and Mike are OK.”
The day had been fairly uneventful until that point, Watkins said. He’d started at midnight and would keep working straight through — and most likely after — the storm. Watkins’ job during the storm was to check each downed tree and prioritize the work needed to remove or mitigate the damage done.
The record for consecutive hours worked during his eight years at public works, Watkins said, was about 48.
“I told the kids, ‘See you in a couple days,’” Watkins said, “but you never know.”
The tree on the shelter set off a flurry of calls for Watkins, who was driving a white city pickup truck. As the storm gained intensity, he’d get a call directing him on where to go from the city’s Emergency Operations Center at the fire department headquarters on Bank Street.
Then it was off: to a report of wires and branches down on Redden Avenue at Colman Street, a tree into a house on Ashcraft Road and Jefferson Avenue and a tree down at Gardner and Glenwood avenues. As he drove, Watkins maneuvered city streets covered with leaves and debris. Many roadways were blocked because of downed trees, wires or flooding. At each site, Watkins snapped a digital picture of the damage. The city gets reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for storm-related expenses.
“FEMA likes to have pictures of everything,” Watkins said as he snapped a shot of a downed tree through his truck windshield.
But an hour into the most serious part of the storm, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio called all city employees off the roads as sustained winds reached 50 mph, causing unsafe conditions.
“We didn’t get called off the road during (Tropical Storm) Irene,” said Watkins.
It’s a stressful situation, but Watkins was taking an optimistic outlook 15 hours into his shift. He’d stood in the thick of the storm to get the job done.
“The thing about these things is, you’ve just got to stay calm and take it as it comes,” Watkins said. “Some people get too high-strung about them.”