Published February 10. 2013 4:00AM Updated February 10. 2013 1:19PM
Roads and many businesses reopened, but tens of thousands of southeastern Connecticut residents remained without power Saturday as the region started digging out from what one meteorologist said could be the second-worst blizzard in recorded weather history.
The blizzard brought 2 feet of snow to southeastern Connecticut with wind gusts approaching hurricane force intensity. The National Weather Service reported 60 mph peak wind gust speeds at the Groton-New London Airport - the third-highest in the state, after Westport (82 mph) and Portland (81 mph).
Thunder and lightning were added to the mix as well, giving the region a brief national spotlight on The Weather Channel.
The sun came out by midday, but temperatures dipped into the 20s by nightfall, with below-zero and single-digit temperatures expected overnight.
Today is supposed to be sunny with highs in the mid-30s. The next storm is expected to arrive by Monday, bringing a possibility of sleet and snow before 9 a.m. followed by rain and temperatures in the 40s in a region where many storm drains are buried deep under several feet of plowed snow.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Saturday night that he has asked President Barack Obama for an emergency declaration for Connecticut, mainly to obtain assistance from federal contracts and equipment such as payloaders to clear snow. The Connecticut congressional delegation echoed the governor's request with its own letter to Obama.
"Federal resources are critical to ensure rapid, effective response and recovery from this record breaking snowfall and wind damage," the congressional letter said.
Malloy visited the emergency shelter in East Lyme Saturday afternoon, calling the region the hardest-hit by the storm.
More than 27,900 Connecticut Light & Power customers - down from more than 33,000 early Saturday morning - remained without power as of 9 p.m. Saturday, most of them in southeastern Connecticut. Regional emergency shelters run by the local chapter of the American Red Cross are open in East Lyme and Stonington.
"Road conditions are hazardous and have made travel difficult for our line workers and tree workers," said Bill Quinlan, CL&P senior vice president of emergency preparedness. "We will continue working around the clock and expect to make strong progress in the harder hit southeastern part of the state; however, some customers may be without power for a day or more."
According to the CL&P website Saturday night, 75 percent of North Stonington customers, 67 percent of East Lyme's, 64 percent of Old Lyme's, 53 percent of Stonington's and 40 percent of Waterford's remained without power.
Mitch Gross, media spokesman for CL&P, said the company is assessing the damage, which includes heavy snowfall and downed wires.
The company has hundreds of line and tree workers in the region and is staging in Madison and at the Waterford Speedbowl, he said, and is working with towns to coordinate assessment and restoration efforts, he said.
"There was a great deal to assess and repair," he added. "We will do everything we can to move as quickly and as safely as we can."
A 'phenomenal' storm
Meteorologist Gary Lessor of the Weather Center at Western Connecticut State University offered just one adjective for the storm that walloped New England: "Phenomenal."
"No other words to describe it," he said.
Lessor said this blizzard could end up knocking the other whopper of recent memory out of its second-place spot in Connecticut history - the blizzard of 1978, which rolled in 35 years ago Thursday.
In terms of intensity, he said - the snowfall and powerful winds - this storm has its '78 predecessor beat. The highest snow accumulation in the state clocked in at 38 inches in Milford, and the highest wind gust blew through Westport at 82 mph.
Still No. 1, though, is the blizzard of 1888, which buried Middletown in 50 inches of snow - the only officially recorded accumulation in the state, Lessor said.
"That basically just paralyzed everybody," he said. "Throughout the state it was just absolute gridlock for days on end because obviously they didn't have the tools to get rid of it."
An average of 25 inches buried New London County, with 30 inches reported in Old Saybrook. Norwich and Colchester saw 25 inches or more, while Ledyard had 22 inches and Stonington and Mystic measured 21 inches.
Some areas saw 4 or 5 inches per hour for long stretches. Lessor said no official snowfall totals were available for New London and Groton.
Malloy reopened all state roads as of 4 p.m. Saturday, saying it was important to resume commercial deliveries to stores depleted of basic supplies. Some large tractor-trailer trucks ventured out to make deliveries to stores that were picked clean before the storm.
Still, many roads and intersections remained clogged with snow by late afternoon.
Norwich Public Works Director Barry Ellison said city plow crews worked 34 straight hours clearing snow during and after the storm Friday night and Saturday. A small emergency crew was assigned to work overnight Saturday, and crews will return for another 10-hour shift today in the hopes of clearing roads enough to allow school to reopen Monday. Some crews will remove excess snow from downtown and deposit it at the Hamilton Avenue recreation field.
Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver said she was hopeful that schools could reopen Monday, but that it would depend on the roads. Custodians worked throughout the weekend clearing school parking lots, but "some need a place to put it all."
Preston First Selectman Bob Congdon said several roads were closed in town because of downed trees and wires, including Brickyard, Mathewson Mill and Prodell. He was optimistic that roads would be cleared by Monday so schools could reopen.
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said the city's public works personnel had been "working around the clock" to clear snow. The city has also hired two contracting firms to assist. But full snow removal could take days, he said, and there is no estimate of when all roads will be clear. He is asking residents to remain patient.
Finizio said Saturday evening that all roads were still considered closed, and it was imperative that residents remained off them. City personnel blocked off State and Bank streets Saturday night to allow crews to remove snow.
In Stonington borough, Warden Paul Burgess said late Saturday afternoon that most roads were passable. Several roads, though, were blocked by wires: Diving Street at Hancox Street, Elm Street at High Street, Broad Street, and Bayview Avenue, where a utility pole snapped in front of the American Velvet Mill.
Burgess said the borough's two-person highway crew worked 36 hours straight until midday Saturday. He said they would be back removing snow today with the help of several contractors.
East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica said town crews had been out working since 7 a.m. Friday, and snow plow crews had passed over all town roads at least once. Crews will continue to work on snow removal today.
National Guard lends hand
Malloy activated the Connecticut National Guard to help with both emergency response and storm cleanup.
About 770 National Guard troops are active this weekend, and some already assisting state and local officials responding to the blizzard and cleanup, Lt. Col. John Whitford said Saturday.
National Guardsmen Saturday helped transport about 40 senior citizens who lost power to a regional shelter in town, Whitford said.
Even before the storm, this weekend was a scheduled training weekend for 500 National Guard troops throughout the state. Another 270 troops were placed on active duty Friday night when the storm intensified.
Whitford said overnight Friday, National Guard troops responded to 67 calls to assist stranded motorists, including two medical emergencies in which people were taken to local hospitals. He said most of the calls were in central Connecticut.
National Guard crews also were available to help municipalities clean up from the storm. While they would not do traditional road plowing, the Guard does have heavy equipment to help with snow removal, Whitford said.
Staff writers Kimberly Drelich, Anna Isaacs, Sasha Goldstein and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.