Norwich a beacon of light in the dark aftermath of hurricane Irene

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Tue., Aug. 30, 2011
A venerable old maple on Chelsea Parade was among the victims of hurricane Irene.
A venerable old maple on Chelsea Parade was among the victims of hurricane Irene.

By the time hurricane Irene left eastern Connecticut in its wake and stormed into northern New England, Norwich was the sole island of electricity-powered civilization in an otherwise dark region.

Shopkeepers from surrounding towns whose shelves were empty were sending disappointed customers to Norwich, where power, gasoline, ice and water were available within a few hours after the storm hit. Long lines of cars at gas stations Monday were replaced with "no gas" signs on Tuesday morning.

Norwich mayor Peter Nystrom said that about half the city's residents lost power at the height of the storm Sunday, a total of about 11,000 customers (or meters). "By the end of the storm that evening, we had restored power so that that number dropped to 5,800," he said.

As of press time Tuesday afternoon, Nystrom said that power was yet to be restored to about 100 neighborhoods, which needed damaged transformers replaced. The equipment was available, he said, but Norwich Public Uitility crews were working 16-hour shifts and were stretched to the limit. "We're well-stocked with transformer units. It's a manpower issue," he said. "It's much different from running lines."

NPU crews worked in tandem with staff from Norwich's Public Works to clear countless fallen limbs and the utility wires they took down, the mayor said. "There were trees down in almost every neighborhood. Some are still down," he said. The clean-up effort was "very strongly coordinated," he said.

"They're going in together and working in teams, and our police are there at the same time" to direct traffic around work areas. "That's the benefit of living in a city. The local ownership of assets gives us a tremendous leg up over everyone else" in terms of restoration of services, Nystrom said.

Public works and utility crews were even working to help private property owners where they could, the mayor said. He said that NPU general manager John Bilda took workers to a nursing home where a generator stopped working and helped jury-rig a repair, forestalling the home's evacuation. "I can't speak highly enough of [Bilda]," Nystrom said.

He added that several surrounding communities had asked for mutual aid from NPU for their own power restoration efforts, to augment the efforts of Connecticut Light and Power crews. Nystrom said he'd do so, but "we've got to shore up the home front first. The crews have got to get some rest."

On Monday morning, residents woke to a changed landscape. Unlike other regional towns, the dominant sound wasn't the roar of the generator so much as the whine of chainsaws.

Tree crews were working at Norwich Free Academy, where they said several trees were lost and numerous limbs had fallen from the campus' stately old trees. Local residents strolled down to Indian Leap, which was transformed into a Niagara-like torrent littered with large uprooted trees.

On Rockwell Avenue, Erin McDonald sat on her front porch awaiting the tow truck that would remove her totaled 2007 Toyota. The car had been sitting in her driveway – a place where she'd  moved it for safety during the storm, she said -  when a tree crashed into the roof.

The same tree also damaged her mother Jan McDonald's car, but miraculously didn't damage their house. "I've got a big dent on my hood, but I feel so grateful," said Jan.

Norwich school students got to enjoy an extra week of summer vacation, as the start of school was pushed back to Tuesday, Sept. 6 for the city's elementary and middle schools, as well as NFA and Norwich Tech. Norwich Public Schools administrative assistant Joni Barber said that unlike past years, NFA freshmen would not have a separate day of orientation, but would report for the first day with the rest of the student body.

In another note, Nystrom said that the Norwich Senior Center on Mahan Drive will be open for anyone in need of power for medical oxygen.


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