Greenwich reflects on Sandy

Sandy's impact devastated Greenwich, knocking down trees and cutting off power. A year later the town is looking back. — John Ferris Robben photo

Sandy’s impact devastated Greenwich, knocking down trees and cutting off power. A year later the town is looking back.
— John Ferris Robben photo

Superstorm Sandy roared through Greenwich one year ago this past Tuesday and left devastation in its wake, with three homes destroyed by fire and thousands left without power as trees and branches tore down power lines.

It could have been much worse, say town officials, who feared for the worst as they watched with growing concern in the days and hours leading up to the storm’s landfall.

“We really dodged a bullet,” said the town’s conservation director, Denise Savageau, as she looked back on the storm that hit the town on Oct. 29, 2011.

Ms. Savageau said that even with the massive damage to the town, the storm could have had a far bigger impact without some good timing.

“It hit here about one hour after low tide, so we were spared the worst,” she said. “If the surge had come in at high tide, we would have seen an additional four feet of water in Old Greenwich.”

The town was spared even more flooding as no rain accompanied the storm. If rain had fallen, it would have seen water that normally empties into the Sound from rivers, brooks and streams instead spread inland as the wall of water from the surge blocked inland waters from emptying, she said.

Old Greenwich was badly hit by the storm and it was on Binney Lane that fire erupted in one home and spread to a pair of nearby homes as high winds spurred the flames. Additionally, low-lying areas flooded as the storm pushed the water levels in Long Island Sound higher than normal and water swept into Old Greenwich.

The storm’s rage and devastation came as a wakeup call to many in the community, said Old Greenwich Association President David Rafferty.

“This was a shock to a lot of people to see what this sort of storm could mean, not just now but in the future,” he said.

Residents had lost power in prior storms, but this was really the first time where they fully felt what a major storm could do to an exposed coastal community, Mr. Rafferty said.

“You start to get a greater respect for nature,” he said.

Some residents have started to raise their homes to conform to FEMA guidelines and also to ensure that they avoid flooding as much as possible for the next storm, he said.

The water levels shocked Ms. Savageau and others as they watched water height recorded at King’s Point, N.Y., Bridgeport, and the Stamford hurricane barrier continue to rise as the storm approached.

“We were watching the water levels rise higher and we were like, ‘Wow, look at what is happening,’” she said, still with a touch of wonder in her voice at the recollection.

“Let’s just say we were getting a little nervous at the emergency operations center,” she said.

Daniel Warzoha, the town’s emergency management director, said Sandy wasn’t going to pass without hitting the town hard.

“It was clear in the hours leading up to the storm that it was going to be very bad,” he said.

As the storm hit, news came in of the Binney Lane fires, and Mr. Warzoha, a former town fire chief, said it was an extremely serious situation, not only for the residents involved but also for the first responders, who had to brave a dangerous situation to get to the scene and then possibly deal with the fire.

“That was causing us the most angst at the emergency operations center,” he said. “We had a lot of personnel caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Fire Department Chief Peter Siecienski said storms like Sandy or Irene the year before place a heavy responsibility on first responders like the Fire Department. However, first responders can be placed unnecessarily in harm’s way as people who failed to heed evacuation orders later need to be rescued. He cited one example during the storm when an out-of-town family lost contact with their elderly parents and called for someone to check on them.

Chief Siecienski said first responders cautiously made their way to the home and found the couple safe but determined to stay in their home. He said decisions like that can place firefighters in grave peril of being seriously injured or worse. During another part of the storm, he said, first responders had to “shepherd” about 30 people from their homes.

“That’s just not the way we want to respond in emergency situations,” he said.

Mr. Warzoha joined Chief Siecienski in noting that residents have to heed evacuation warnings, not only for their own safety but also for the safety of emergency personnel who are already dealing with many urgent calls.

“That’s something we are going to have to continue working with residents on,” he said. “This is an ongoing battle that we are going to keep fighting.”

The storm, along with earlier storms, has taught the town many lessons, Mr. Warzoha said.

“The tools in the toolbox have expanded. I hope we don’t have to put them in play like we did during Sandy for quite some time,” Mr. Warzoha said.

He singled out one aspect of the town’s preparations that he said worked exceptionally well.

“We never sheltered as many people before as we did during Sandy, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

He pointed to the generators at Eastern Middle School and at the Bendheim Western Greenwich Civic Center as vital pieces of the town’s emergency response, as they enable the two sites to act effectively as emergency shelters. He said it’s investments like that that help the town be ready for emergencies.

It wasn’t only the emergency calls the department made during the storm that Chief Siecienski noted was important. He said it was also the personal contact with residents, many of them without power for days, that was crucial.

“We had about 40 pieces of apparatus, from a utility truck to a pumper. We were able to respond in sizable numbers,” he said. “The more you have responders out there the public knows work is being done. That helps.”

The town and the region have been battered by a number of major storms since 2010 that have seen tens of thousands lose power for a considerable time and at the same time stretching the manpower and resources of the Fire Department, Chief Siecienski said.

However, those storms have proven to be a great educator, he said.

“We’ve gotten to be very efficient in the way we handle situations out there,” he said. “When you are handling 200 calls a day, you get very experienced, very quickly.”

Residents are also putting some hard-earned lessons into practice as well, Chief Siecienski said. He noted that the department received few calls about carbon monoxide poisoning from residents incorrectly using generators at their homes.

While he doesn’t play down the damage and heartache caused by Sandy, Chief Siecienski said it was a moving experience to see how the town reacted to the storm and its aftermath. After the fire, which came during the height of the storm, Chief Siecienski called the firefighters “heroic” and said their response saved more homes in the heavily populated area from being destroyed.

“What I remember most are the actions of the responders and how the community came together to deal with the aftermath,” Chief Siecienski said.

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