Irene aftermath in Fairfield: Mopping up, moving on
Updated 4:43 pm, Tuesday, August 30, 2011
The intersection of Reef and Fairfield Beach roads Monday morning was a few degrees short of chaotic -- residents of the storm-battered shoreline neighborhood to get back to their homes jostling the many sightseers curious to get a first-hand look at the mess left in Tropical Storm Irene's wake.
Many of the nosy visitors were turned away by police, and residents of the western end of Fairfield Beach Road, a narrow barrier beach sandwiched between Long Island Sound and Pine Creek, who were leaving their homes were warned by police they would not be able to return until town officials deem it safe. As the morning wore on and Department of Public Works crews carted away trucks full of sand dumped across the street by storm surges, residents were slowly allowed to return.
The storm's began sweeping over the beachfront neighborhood late Saturday night, and the tropical storm ratcheted up the rain-and-wind onslaught through Sunday afternoon. Mandatory evacuations were initially issued for all streets in the shoreline area south of Edwards Street, but that area was later expanded when tidal flood waters surged a half-mile inland. About 70 people took refuge at a shelter set up at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, but the shelter's last residents departed under bright skies Monday morning.
For one man, however, the tenant of the Fairfield Beach Road cottage pushed off its foundation and almost into Pine Creek by Irene, Monday's visit was a trip to remove his belongings for good. He declined to give his name, but said that he, his wife and their five dogs had left their home Saturday morning, long before Irene arrived.
"My wife made us leave," he said. "We'd been through a couple of storms, nothing really dramatic, but we'd heard from our neighbors how bad it can get."
He said on Monday they took from the partially collapsed cottage, now dangling into the water, some possessions that are important to them.
They first beheld the damage to their rented home Sunday when, since Fairfield Beach Road was inaccessible, they got a view of the devastation from behind on Pine Creek Avenue.
"It's amazing to see the power of nature," he said. Surprisingly, anything they left on shelves in the cottage stayed there despite the battering. The 432-square-foot home, built in 1900, is assessed at $332,920. The tenant said the Fairfield Fire Department will supervise reclamation operations so that they can safely get the rest of their belongings out of the house.
The collapsed house, first spotted by Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Chavenello -- from the other side of the creek -- prompted a rescue team to be launched Sunday afternoon because officials were not initially able to confirm whether the home's occupants had left.
The cottage, however, was not the only building on Fairfield Beach Road to take a battering from Irene.
By Monday, about 20 homes on Fairfield Beach Road were posted as unsafe by the town Building Department and two were condemned. The homes deemed unsafe were on the beach side of the road. The owners will have to bring in structural engineers to certify the buildings are safe before residents are allowed to return.
Fairfield Building Official James Gilleran said a home on Timberlane Drive, where a tree penetrated the roof, was also declared unsafe.
Standing in front of the partially collapsed cottage, Police Chief Gary MacNamara said a lot of people might be thinking that Tropical Storm Irene "was a bust ... It was not a bust, you were just prepared better than the storm that hit us." And he said those people who suffered flooding or still can't return to their homes, "it was not a bust."
Interim First Selectman Michael Tetreau said that after meetings planned later Monday officials hope to have a better handle on when power would be restored to town residents. At the height of the storm, more than 16,000 customers of United Illuminating -- or roughly three-quarters of the town total -- had lost power.
As of Monday, Tetreau said officials had not put together a final figure on the cost of local damages caused by Irene.
"One of the challenges is we can't draw on resources from other towns," he said, and also because UI has to first take care of downed power lines before the town's crews can get in to remove fallen trees and clear the streets.
Tetreau said the town's two priorities are restoring power and clearing roadways.
"We are currently working with UI and AT&T to accomplish these two objectives," he said.
"DPW has worked to get the number of roadways still closed down to 25 from a peak of over 100. The additional roads require UI and AT&T cooperation before DPW can complete their work."
The first selectman said officials expect power outages would continue for "at least" the next several days.
Deputy Fire Chief Art Reid said town officials plan to start working on cost estimates for the damage and clean up fairly soon.
"We're just beginning that process," he said Tuesday.
Tetreau said the preparation by town officials to get information out to residents well in advance of the approaching storm helped to minimize the impact of Irene. Still, he said, "we have a lot of work to do."
Fire Chief Richard Felner said members of the emergency management office spent Sunday night evaluating the damage on Fairfield Beach Road and throughout town.
Nonetheless, many town residents were breathing a sigh of relief after the tropical storm passed, downgraded from hurricane status to weaker status before it hit the Connecticut coastline.
"It was definitely better than we thought it would be," said Penfield Road resident Mike Bellora. Water made it to the front of his car, but not into the garage, he said, as he worked to clean up storm debris from the front yard. "We didn't lost our electricity ... we made out pretty well."
During the storm, town officials set up a command center at police headquarters around
1 p.m. Saturday, monitoring the storm and making decisions such as expanding the mandatory evacuation area when the incoming tide reached One Rod Highway.
Robo calls and text messages were sent periodically to residents, updating them on the weather data and the changed evacuation orders.
Tetreau praised the efforts not only of police, fire and public works personnel, but also of volunteers who staffed the shelter set up at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.
"Everyone worked together so seamlessly," Tetreau said. "I hope we don't every have an opportunity to do this again, but they've earned my confidence."
Tony Trimboli, a contractor from Norwalk, got an early start Monday assessing damage on Fairfield Beach Road, riding his bicycle down the street.
Trimboli said he built a house on the road in 1999 for a professor from Long Island and wanted to examine the dwelling for him.
He took photos to send to the professor, but said his craftsmanship, and the strict building codes for new houses along the beachfront, stood up to Irene.
As Trimboli took photos, he seemed stunned by the damage. "The storm was like a concrete mixer, it just came in here and threw everything around," he said.
"It's going to be weeks," Trimboli said of time it will take to clean up and restore power to the battered beach area. "They have to re-set all these poles. It's going to be a long job."
At the Seagrape Cafe, corner of Reef and Fairfield Beach roads, manager Miles Stevens and his staff pulled sand bags from the front of the doors and re-opened the popular hangout.
Stevens chatted with police in front of the bar as his staff swept out dirt and sand piled up by rising flood water Sunday.
"I hear the college kids will be back this week, so I'm sure we'll be here at the corner again soon," an officer joked to Stevens, who grinned and grabbed a broom, pitching in to help clean up after a storm as strong as any the beach area has endured in decades.
Staff writer Tom Cleary contributed to this report.