Major coastal storms: Once bitten twice shy
When we moved to Fairfield in 1982, our only benchmark for hurricanes was that they always struck places like the Carribbean, the Gulf Coast, Florida and sometimes the Carolinas. We never connected the dots to hurricanes that strike Connecticut until September 1985, when Gloria arrived with a vengeance.
But the day that storm churned up the coast, I barely changed my routine. Despite some advances in cellphone technology (who knew from 3G and 4G then?) and plenty of pre-Gloria coverage on TV to warn us, I ignored the alerts and decided to go into New York, as usual, to my job at a major public relations agency. Bad move.
My usual 5:55 a.m. train to New York arrived on time and without any problems, and it was raining lightly. "Ah, a normal rainy day," I thought. "This hurricane thing is a pipe dream." Not!
By the time I started walking up Lexington Avenue toward my office at 54th Street and 3rd Avenue, the puddles in the street were deepening and I couldn't control my umbrella in the increasing wind gusts. I was drenched and was quickly changing my perspective about this storm.
When I arrived, I turned on the office radio to get an update, and they were already announcing that the storm was on track to hit New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, and train service was going to be curtailed by 2 p.m. between Grand Central and Connecticut. The broadcaster warned that this looked like a bad storm and commuters might consider making hotel reservations.
But I was still chuckling. "What, are they kidding me?" I said, sounding very cavalier as colleagues began arriving. A majority of our folks were from the boroughs and were amazed that I had decided to come in.
"Why not?" I said. "It's just heavy rain and winds. If that's all a hurricane is for this part of the country, I'm not impressed. I have work to do."
I paid dearly for my decision to stick around. Finally, at 1:15 p.m., after my boss almost kicked me out of my office since we were closing early, I had all I could do to run in the pelting rain back to Grand Central. In those days I could run much faster. When I arrived at Grand Central, I'd missed a special 1:45 train and learned that there wouldn't be another one until almost 4. Grand Central was teeming with people. I ran to call my wife. But the pay phones were packed. Not many folks owned cells in those days. When I finally reached my wife, she screamed that I should get my sorry "rump" home fast, because the storm was hitting with full force. I've toned down her response, seeing as this is a family newspaper.
Nearly three hours later, as I drove home from the station, the eye of the storm had passed, but I drove past flooded roads, downed trees, piles of debris and darkened houses. When I arrived at our house, it, too, was dark. We were without power for almost four days. I had underestimated the residual damage a hurricane can really cause and learned a sad lesson.
Gloria educated me!
Fast forward to Aug. 26. We'd had abundant warnings that Irene was going to hit us. No matter what anyone may say, I'll take safe over sorry for this one, folks.
The team I work with at the Fairfield Museum and History Center -- based on our proximity to a marsh that could flood directly across from the building -- worked feverishly in the calm before Irene to move exhibits, books and other treasures to tables or to levels at least a foot above the floor.
The museum has a lot of windows, and we moved everything in the gallery areas, the lobby and our offices away from them in case any shattered. And we added sandbags to ensure that water wouldn't ruin everything.
In the end, the flooding was on the back side of the marsh, sparing our beautiful facility. In another miracle, a tree branch that could have smashed a window of the Sun Tavern on the Museum grounds, apparently broke off literally at the window ledge. How's that for dodging a bullet?
Miraculously our own home was spared from downed trees, our basement was bone dry and our power was off for three hours on Sunday. We had more damage to our back fence in the high winds after the storm. Go figure.
And among the millions of bizarre stories was the abrupt cancellation on Friday night of the wedding of one our closest friends' daughters, due to the state mandate on catering facilities. After total meltdown, the family regrouped, the kids were married anyway at their condo on Saturday afternoon with immediate family and a "hustled-in" justice of the peace and the banquet was pizza. With fast airline rebooking, they are happily on their honeymoon in Aruba. So, Good Night, Irene. Fairfield and the rest of Connecticut say good riddance and glad you've moved on. And we have survived another major storm, this time with plenty of warning and government mandates that definitely worked.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.