Earl may only brush Fairfield, but town not always so lucky
While Hurricane Earl was forecast to deal southwestern Connecticut only a glancing blow Friday with drenching rain and gusting wind far below full hurricane force, the region is no stranger to savage storms that have inflicted serious damage.
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was one of the worst natural disasters this area has endured, shutting down transportation and power, while destroying many buildings along the shoreline, according to historical documents. Other storms, like Hurricane Gloria in 1985 slammed into the beachfronts of Fairfield, Westport and other coastal communities, sending residents scurrying.
Forecasts on Thursday were predicting that Hurricane Earl would be another near-miss for the western Connecticut coastline, with only the eastern part of the state feeling major effects of the storm. A tropical storm watch was issued for all of coastal Connecticut and the majority of New England on Friday. The Fairfield-Westport area remained in the "cone of uncertainty," according to National Weather Center predictions, but with a chance the brunt of the storm could bear down on the region.
The National Weather Service had issued a tropical storm watch at 2:55 p.m. Thursday. It is set to expire at 3 a.m. Saturday. A tropical storm warning may replace the watch at some point Friday, as Hurricane Earl moves closer to Connecticut. The tropical storm is expected to bring heavy wind and rain, as well as high tides up to two or three feet higher than normal. Flooding is possible in the shoreline area.
Two more tropical storms trail behind, Fiona and Gaston, and both could take aim at the state, according to meteorologists.
A major hurricane has not swept onto shore in the area since Gloria in 1985, but Fairfield, Westport and the rest of the state have been put on alert about subsequent storms that ultimately failed to deal a direct hit. But the warnings consistently remind area residents about the potential devastation that a ferocious hurricane like the one in 1938 could cause.
The September 1938 hurricane killed one area resident and reshaped the coastal region. The devastation was worse across the New York area shoreline and other parts of New England, with 700 killed and over $15 million in damage done. Power and telephones were knocked out completely in both Fairfield and Westport. It took 14 days to restore train service from Fairfield County to New York City. In Fairfield, 24 houses were damaged, while 27 beach cottages were completely destroyed.
The damage by that category-four hurricane left a lasting legacy, as it "cleared the beach of ramshackle cottages and was a major step in improving the Fairfield County shore," according to an account of the storm in a Fairfield Historical Society document. With houses worth far greater than those shacks now lining the beach in both towns, the cost of a storm that size would be significantly higher today. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the '38 storm would have caused $18 billion in damage to the Long Island Sound region, both in New York and Connecticut, had it happened in 2008.
Another major storm, Hurricane Bob threatened the region in 1991, but then swept farther east than expected. Prior to that, Gloria's eye struck nearby Fairfield and Westport, landing in Milford, but the damage was not as great as it could have been. Then-Fairfield First Selectman Jacquelyn Durrell was quoted in the Fairfield Citizen-News after the storm, saying that the town was "very lucky," but she "wouldn't want Gloria to come visit us again."
Gloria displaced residents near the shoreline, including Fairfield University students, many of whom had to be rescued by Army Reserve trucks that could trek through high flood waters. Students were reported as leaving their flooded rentals with, "books and beer."
Hurricane Carol, in 1955, was another close call for the region. While it left behind wind damage and power outages, along with some flooding, the eye of the storm landed closer to New London and Rhode Island, down the coast.
Other hurricanes, including Donna in 1960 and Belle in 1976, put town officials on edge, but caused only minor damage and flooding, including evacuations of town beaches.
With a long history of major shoreline storms, area officials know they have to be prepared.
"We are overdue," said Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. "It could be the next storm or the next one or the one after that, we need to be prepared."
Fairfield First Selectman Kenneth Flatto agreed. "Residents aren't even used to category one-hurricanes. Most residents have not experienced any significant storms other than Nor'easters." Flatto said the town has seen high winds of 40 to 50 mph that caused damage, from downed trees and power lines, in recent years, but hurricanes are "something to worry about," and plan for, just in case the next storm doesn't head out to sea.