Beach residents share storm stories
As the tide rose on Saturday night, Debbie Schiavone peered out her front window, reluctantly.
"I didn't want to look outside, but the windows were rattling and I couldn't bear to look out back," she said.
Out back, the Long Island Sound was thumping her deck, surging around her house and burying her front lawn. Amid the watery chaos, a neighbor's car alarm sounded as the vehicle filled with seawater across the street. Its horn was beeping and its lights flashed. The ocean poured into Pine Creek.
Schiavone lives near the eastern tip of Lantern Point, the mile-and-a-half-long stretch of Fairfield Beach Road that juts west of Reef Road. She considers Saturday night the scariest she's experienced since moving to the peninsula in 1994. Recounting the evening, she tapped her chest rapidly. "With every crash of waves, my heart was going. I felt like I was on a houseboat."
In fact, Schiavone was lucky. Though trapped on the frontline of what many are calling the worst storm to hit Fairfield in decades, she and her home escaped mostly unscathed. The storm rattled her puppies and dumped 2 feet of sand on her front-yard flower beds, but she never lost power and her home and car remained safe.
Damage was more intense elsewhere -- both in her neighborhood, where flooding and wind damage varied, and around town, where falling trees often ripped down power lines or smashed into cars or homes.
According to Jim Gillerman, Fairfield's chief building inspector, as of Tuesday, only about five homes in town required special attention. The worst was on Lynnbrook Road, near Villa Avenue, where a 100-foot oak fell from a neighboring property right through the middle of a house. Fortunately, no one was living there. Gillerman said a contractor has since boarded up the home, which he believes is a total loss.
Meanwhile, a home on Old Mill Road was determined unsafe for living after a tree crashed into it. The family residing there had to leave the home. But the tree has since been removed, Gillerman said. Another tree fell through one half of a Brookside Drive home, forcing the electricity to be shut off. But the residents there were allowed to stay in the other half of the house, Gillerman said. And on Galloping Hill Road, a tree ripped through the back half of one home, landing in the kitchen and dining room. The family did not have to leave the home, however.
On Greenfield Hill Road, one pine tree cracked about 60 feet high. The tree was surrounded by emptiness in all directions but one -- and there it fell, landing squarely on top of a Nissan, chopping off its side-view mirror and crushing the passenger side of its windshield. Two shafts of pine remained atop the car on Monday. The car bore Massachusetts license plates. No one was home.
Nearby, a crunched mailbox stood across the road from an undamaged one, which sat on the ground beneath its wooden holder. Caution tape was hung from trees, stop signs and utility poles. At 5 p.m., a United Illuminating Co. crew reattached wires to poles on Mine Hill Road. The street had not yet reopened.
John Taxiltaridis' night straddled these worlds of varying damage. As owner of Beach Side Deli and Pizza, 740 Fairfield Beach Road, he kept his store open until around 9:30 p.m., as nearby residents ordered dinner from him in droves. Though his parking lot was a foot deep in seawater and the streets "were crazy, like a river," his Jeep Wrangler handled the circumstances fine.
After closing his shop, he returned home to watch the end of the men's Big East Championship basketball game. But his home near Lake Mohegan had lost power -- along with more than 6,000 other homes in town, nearly 30 percent of Fairfield. So he and some friends returned to his store to watch the end of the game.
Schiavone went to bed just after midnight, after high tide had passed. She knew then that the worst was behind her. Still, she slept poorly and woke several hours later with the fire department arriving out front. They asked her if her next door neighbors were home. She thought no. The firemen pointed to the home's roof. The top of the brick chimney had snapped and was resting against a third-floor dormer window. The window's frame had buckled slightly.
Fearful that an exhaust pipe had burst, the firemen broke their way into the house and searched the bedrooms. No one was home. The residents, who are seniors at Fairfield University, were traveling back from spring break in the Dominican Republic and in Orlando.
On Monday afternoon, two of them, Bob Kelly and Chris Surette, surveyed the damage. Several roof panels were missing from the wrap-around deck that leads to their beachfront backyard. The men tiptoed down the deck's wooden stairs, which wobbled and seemed ready to snap. A gnarled aluminum rowboat had washed up, along with a tire. Their table and grill had vanished with the outgoing tide.
"We're thankful the house is still standing," Surette said.
The seniors had been instructed to stay out of the eastern side of the upstairs until the chimney is removed, in case it falls through the ceiling. Meanwhile, a roommate's third-floor bedroom had flooded. Another roommate's car -- the one whose alarm was going off -- would not start.
As Lantern Point continues west, it bends right and the homes along the shore rest atop stilts. Some of the wooden staircases leading up to those homes were broken and hanging askew on Monday. One staircase oscillated in the afternoon breeze.
A bit farther down the peninsula, Julian Lopez was scooping wet sand from his parent's driveway with a snow shovel. After two hours of work, plenty of sand still needed to be cleared. And the rain was picking up. His sister, Chloe, came outside in socks to recount the evening. She'd watched the storm from a third-story window, she said. The house shook and she watched the waves crash over cars.
For Schiavone, living on the beach is a double-edged sword. Beside the sliding doors in back of her living room, there hangs a sign: "Welcome to Paradise."
"I love it. But after yesterday, I was ready to put the for-sale sign out front," she said.
Then the storm weakened, some friends visited, the sky brightened, and so did her mood.
"It's sort of like childbirth; it's hard to go through, but when it's done, it's worth it," she mused. "You see the sea gulls flying and everything's calm. And then you say, `OK, I'll sell it next year.'"