Malloy on Irene’s impact: It was bad, but ‘could have been worse’

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy inspected flooded river valleys and hard-hit coastal areas by helicopter today, an early step toward seeking federal disaster relief from a tropical storm that destroyed dozens of homes and left a record 916,000 customers without power.

“Clearly, this could have been worse, but it was pretty bad out there,” Malloy said in a midday briefing at the Emergency Operations Center. “We’re fortunate to have had a minimal loss of life and relatively few injuries.”

irene rubble

Wreckage of waterfront homes in East Haven (National Guard photo)

Connecticut’s death toll was two: an elderly woman who died in a house fire in Prospect, and a man killed when his canoe capsized Sunday on a flood-swollen river in Bristol. His body was recovered today.

State officials had no preliminary damage estimate.

Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a strong tropical storm Sunday before it raked across western Connecticut, but its torrential rains caused flash floods and its coastal storm surge collapsed homes on Long Island Sound.

Metro-North resumed limited service this afternoon, running on a Sunday schedule. The governor urged motorists to take care, as many secondary roads still  are blocked by fallen trees, and the availability of gasoline is spotty.

Malloy Helicopter

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (National Guard photo)

Damage to the power grid was extensive, and Malloy said some areas will be without power for at least a week.

At the peak, the state’s largest utility, 759,000 of Connecticut Light & Power’s 1.2 million customers were without power, as were 157,000 customers of the smaller United Illuminating, Malloy said.

Service was restored by midday to 170,000 CL&P and 107,000 UI customers, leaving nearly 700,000 without power, the worst outage ever to hit Connecticut.

“Now, we begin the process of getting back to normal as quickly as we can,” Malloy said.

But cellular telephone service actually could worsen as battery backups begin to fail on cellular towers in blacked-out areas, a new consequence since the state’s previous record blackout caused by Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

Malloy and Gary Stanley, a federal disaster official, took an 80-minute flight over the damage, setting off from the Army National Guard air facility in Windsor Locks aboard a UH-60 Blackhawk.

Col. John Whitford shot photographs as the copter banked over Simsbury, where the Farmington River spilled from its banks and surrounded buildings.

The copter flew at 500 feet for most of the trip, looping south over flood damage in Bristol and west to the Stevenson Dam on the Housatonic River, whose construction after the devastating floods in the 1950s mitigated damage in this storm, Malloy said.

“To see the Stevenson Dam runoff system work as well as it did is quite impressive,” Malloy said.

Farmington River Simsbury

Farmington River in Simsbury. (National Guard photo)

The Housatonic rose from eight feet Saturday to 20.9 feet on Sunday afternoon, 11 feet above flood stage. It was at 16 feet this afternoon.

The aerial tour also passed over the Long Island Sound shoreline communites of East Haven, West Haven and Branford, before flying up the Connecticut River valley back to the Guard facility.

The tidal surge was more than 4 feet in Bridgeport, blocking city streets and flooding two power sub-stations, leaving much of the state’s largest city without power for hours on Sunday. The sub-stations were pumped out and back on line Sunday afternoon.

“Another foot of tide, we would have lost more buildings,” Malloy said.

In Fairfield, the tide spilled a half-mile inland, and the Saugatuck River flooded in Wesport, one of many rivers and streams that spilled their banks across the state. In the Forestville section of Bristol, the Pequabuck River overflowed and turned East Main Street into a fast-flowing spillway.

Witnesses told authorities they saw two men abandon a red canoe as it sped toward a bridge. One man was seen fleeing; the body of the other man was found today downstream in Plainville.

A woman in Prospect died in a house fire apparently caused by a falling electric line. Two firefighters were treated for electric shocks.