Residents of Old Mystic 'really caught off guard'

Old Mystic Fire Chief Ken Richards Jr. says if he could have done one thing differently during last year's flood, he would have ordered a mandatory evacuation rather than a voluntary one.

But no one expected that, during the height of the storm, water levels would rise more than 20 inches in an hour.

"It all happened so quickly," Richards said Tuesday. "One minute you were knee-deep in water and then it was up to your waist."

Between March 29 and April 1, 2010, torrential rains forced rivers in Connecticut and Rhode Island to overflow their banks, wiping out bridges, damaging roads and flooding homes. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

Richards recalled that the fire department responded to more than two dozen calls for water rescues, saving people who were stranded in their homes and in their cars.

"I've been involved with the department for 35 years and we have never done that many water rescues - ever," he said. "People were really caught off guard and didn't leave their homes."

Richards said there still are some residual effects from the flood. A bridge on North Stonington Road, for example, is open to traffic but can't handle the weight of fire apparatus. He said trucks must travel down Main Street and make a right onto Route 27, which he calls a "bad intersection."

"It's a huge safety issue," Richards said. "We almost got clipped by cars a couple of times."

Groton Town and Stonington have so far committed $50,000 each to make repairs on the bridge.

Richards said the firefighters were well-trained to respond to all the emergencies, adding that he always emphasizes technical rescue training. "It was very rewarding to see all the time and effort pay off tenfold," he added.

Some good things did come out of last year's flood, Richards said: His department received a new sense of appreciation from the community and was able to upgrade its 10-year-old water-rescue suits.

"We received overwhelming support from the community," Richards said. "It increased our public image and taught the community that we do more than just fight fires."

i.larraneta@theday.com

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