Struggling with post-Irene problems can be especially trying for rural towns

Brett Mastroianni's East Coast Jewelry & Loan Shop on Route 2 in North Stonington had no power Tuesday, but he was open for customers.

Without access to ATMs, Mastroianni said, about five people came to his store for some quick cash. "People need money for gas, and they can't get money, so they're pawning stuff," he said.

As power remained out throughout much of southeastern Connecticut, modern conveniences like ATMs, access to gasoline and Internet access - normally taken for granted - were snatched away.

What makes small, rural towns like North Stonington and Lyme so appealing is also what's causing the most headaches in the days after Tropical Storm Irene.

Lyme

For a few hours after the storm hit Sunday, firefighters and ambulance crews at the Hamburg fire station were unable to drive beyond a mile in either direction on Route 156, Emergency Management Director Lee Watkins said.

So far, firefighters have counted more than 250 locations where trees were found lying on wires, Watkins said. Seven houses were damaged by trees, two extensively, he said.

Phone lines went dead, and for a while no one could use their land lines, which meant they also couldn't call 911 if they needed help. Already spotty cell service got worse.

"Emergency response with everything blocked has been our biggest problem and fear," Watkins said.

Thankfully, there have been no major emergencies to report, Watkins said. The 20 residents on the town's "special needs list" all declined to leave their homes in favor of the emergency shelter in East Lyme and appear to be OK, he said.

A majority of roads in town are now passable, though a power line is reportedly still lying across Route 82 East. Parts of Grassy Hill Road, Beaver Brook Road and Blood Street may still be blocked, although crews cleared hard-hit Joshuatown Road Monday. A firefighter described that scenic, winding road "as something from Jurassic Park," Watkins said.

About 70 percent of roads had been cleared as of Tuesday afternoon. By today, about 95 percent of roads should be clear, Watkins said.

As Connecticut Light & Power crews work to restore power to homes - 94 percent of the 1,314 customers in Lyme were still without power Tuesday night - Watkins warned residents against driving over power lines and not presume the lines are dead.

"There is real and significant potential danger," Watkins said. Improperly set up generators can also feed energy back into the lines and pose an electrocution risk, he said.

Town Hall had no power as of Tuesday night, but the main phone line now works. Residents can call (860) 434-7733 for more information, or stop by the Hamburg Fire Station between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., where they can find hot showers, potable water and toilet facilities.

By today, the fire station should also have 3,000 1-liter containers of water and 500 Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) to hand out, Watkins said.

Every home in Lyme has well water, which means that during a power outage there is no water source to draw from.

Residents can also drop off food at the fire station that would spoil without power at home that will be used to feed emergency crews.

Hot meals, water and toilet facilities are also available at the Lymes Senior Center, on Town Woods Road in Old Lyme, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

North Stonington

Tension was high at North Stonington Town Hall as officials, staff and residents, weary from storm cleanup and a power outage that may extend a week, worked Tuesday to get things back to normal.

While the loss of electricity, Internet access and land-line telephones may have been expected, cell phone service was down as well because of a malfunction at the Verizon cell tower behind the fire department on Route 2.

Dick Blodgett was concerned that if there were an emergency of some kind, there would be no way to summon help.

"There's a lack of emergency preparedness for the citizens of North Stonington," Blodgett said as he and his wife, Ora, visited Town Hall Tuesday afternoon looking for answers. "Every form of communication we have is down. This should have been known and prepared for."

For First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II, trying to get answers from state officials and Connecticut Light & Power staff has been frustrating.

"Right now nobody's telling the truth and everybody is bouncing the questions," Mullane said. "Our problems are very similar to every other town. We're doing everything we can."

All 2,534 CL&P customers in the town remained without power Tuesday afternoon. Mullane said the Preston Plains Middle School, at the corner of Routes 2 and 164, would be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and through the rest of the week for hot showers and water.

Local crews and the highway department have been working nearly nonstop to clear debris since the storm hit Sunday, emergency management coordinator Marc Tate said. He said debris blocked about 15 homes on Wyassup Lake Road for almost 24 hours after the storm.

The streets are now passable, although some obstructions remain in roadways, Mullane said. Cossaduck Hill Road has several trees leaning on power lines and downed lines as well, he said, adding that motorists should be cautious because that roadway is only one lane at some points.

Fire Chief Charles Steinhart said volunteers were on call at the station and doing checks every few hours to make sure neighborhoods remained safe.

Behind the fire station, at the town's recreation area, residents enjoyed Tuesday's beautiful weather as they waited for updates.

"You gotta make do with what you got," said Michael Fonnemann. "That's the North Stonington way."

Back on Main Street, not 30 yards from where residents griped and complained at Town Hall, Chad and Adam Tipton settled in on a wall and fished Shunock Brook.

"There's nothing you can do but just wait it out," Chad Tipton said.

s.goldstein@theday.com

j.cho@theday.com

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