Malloy says thousands could be stranded by rising waters

Shoreline residents who failed to heed warnings to evacuate were trapped Monday night by the rising waters of Long Island Sound, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told reporters at a hastily called briefing after 9 p.m.

“I suspect we are talking about thousands of individuals who are in harm’s way,” he said from the Emergency Operations Center at the State Armory in Hartford.

A grim-faced Malloy said it became clear Monday night that many shoreline towns did not order the evacuations recommended by the state, despite repeated warnings of a record storm surge expected on the midnight tide.

On a conference call, Malloy told officials in towns from Greenwich to Old Saybrook that the latest storm data shows a storm surge of 11 feet, topped by waves of another 5 to 7 feet.

He urged late evacuations where safe, but he added that the best course for many stranded residents would be to move to a higher floor and await the safety of dawn’s first light. He warned against traveling unaccompanied through water in the dark.

“Do not try to walk through it. Do not try to swim through it. Do not try to drive through it,” Malloy said.

Officials had no immediate response to a request for a list of shoreline towns that ordered level 4 evacuations — the highest level covering all areas vulnerable to flooding — and those that did not.

“I’ll worry later about who should have done what,” Malloy said. “What I’m most concerned about right now is the loss of human life and what you can do to prevent it.”

Also Monday night, Malloy ordered nonessential state employees not to report to work Tuesday.

As Hurricane Sandy made its long-awaited move to the shore Monday evening, power outages statewide shot up to just under 600,000. And while gusting winds did the bulk of their damage in the state’s southeastern corner, utility officials announced a pre-emptive move that shut down service to 50,000 in the Bridgeport area.

Malloy remained cautious in his media briefing earlier Monday evening, warning there remained the potential for several more hours of dangerous winds and coastal flooding. He emailed an update at 8:46 p.m., announcing he had concluded a conference call urging officials in shoreline towns to step up evacuation efforts before the midnight high tide.

“I’ve told the mayors and first selectmen that they have no time to waste,” Malloy said in his email. “To the extent they have the ability to order mandatory evacuations I’ve told them must give this their highest priority.

“I was concerned all along about the potential destructive impact of this last high tide, and unfortunately the best information we have confirms my worst fears.”

He had opened his 6 p.m. briefing on a higher note.

“I would say that we’re holding our own,” Malloy said, warning residents that outage totals almost certainly would continue to climb, followed by a lengthy restoration period. “If (power) goes down, when it goes down, it’s going to be out for a long time. … I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”

The state’s largest utility, Connecticut Light & Power Co., said that it already had made some progress restoring power, particularly in northwestern Connecticut, where storm winds had been the weakest.

By 7 p.m., CL&P had reported 15 communities experiencing outages for nearly 100 percent of its residential and business customers, with 14 of those towns lying in southeastern Connecticut. Stonington was the first community to hit that black mark.

The lone CL&P town outside of the southeast corner to approach 100 percent outages as of 7 p.m. was Weston, in Fairfield County.

Meanwhile, communities in much of central, north-central and northwestern Connecticut saw 20 percent or less of their homes and businesses lose power.

The state’s other electric utility, United Illuminating, announced Monday evening that another 52,000 customers, primarily in and around downtown Bridgeport, would lose power by 8 p.m. — but not due to high winds.

UI Vice President Tony Marone said the utility, which serves about one-fifth of Connecticut’s homes and businesses along the western shoreline, would shut down its two Congress Street substations in Bridgeport, and a third near the Pequonnock River. These stations were at risk of being breached by floodwaters at high tide, scheduled to arrive around midnight.

Together they serve 47,000 customers in Bridgeport and another 5,000 in Fairfield, Trumbull and Stratford.

“The results (of flood damage) could be catastrophic, which would take weeks to repair,” Malloy said.

But if the substations are not functioning when they potentially are breached, they can be more easily restored, Marone said.

A similar approach was taken in August 2011 with the Congress Street substations during Tropical Storm Irene. Once that event ended and an inspection showed minimal damage, the substation was reactivated within four hours, Marone said.

If a post-Sandy inspection of the Bridgeport substations shows more damage, it could take longer to reactivate them — but still less time than it would require to fix a system that was functioning while flooded, he added.

CL&P, which serves 149 cities and towns, was keeping a close eye late Monday on two shoreline substations — one in Stamford and one in Branford.

William Quinlan, the utility’s senior vice president for emergency preparedness, said crews had nearly finished erecting a 6-foot-high concrete wall that would safeguard the Stamford station at the midnight high tide.

The Branford substation was too large to protect with an emergency wall, Quinlan said, adding that officials hope sandbags, silicone seals placed around facility doors and walls, and water pumps would be sufficient to protect it.

If not, Quinlan added, CL&P would consider shutting down the substation late Monday night, and moving the roughly 10,000 customers served by it onto a portable substation after the storm subsides until damage on the permanent facility can be assessed.

CL&P had absorbed the brunt of the criticism after two major storms in 2011. It took the utility nine days to restore more than 670,000 customers after Tropical Storm Irene, and 12 days to restore 807,000 who lost service following an Oct. 29 nor’easter.

Part of a multi-tiered effort to improve the response this time, Quinlan reported Sunday that CL&P had secured 1,060 line repair workers and another 500 tree removal workers from out-of-state to complement 400 linemen and 300 tree workers it already had on hand.

That contingent exceeds the levels it had when it began its response to either of the 2011 storms, and Malloy, who was one of the CL&P’s biggest critics, said Monday, “they certainly seem to be better prepared in advance of this storm.”

Quinlan said 145 of the 149 municipalities served by CL&P also took advantage of an offer from the utility to station at least one line crew and one tree crew in any community that expressed an interest.

Though crews cannot restore power during adverse weather conditions, Quinlan said sometimes service can be returned remotely from utility grid controls. And in some communities, particularly in northwestern Connecticut, while winds remained below 40 mph, crews were able to correct some damaged poles and service lines.

As of 7 p.m., CL&P had recorded about 28,000 customers with power restored.

Connecticut also had some good news on its highways.

“It seems as if most people have heeded the warnings,” said Malloy, who banned truck traffic on highways at 11 a.m., and closed them to the rest of traffic two hours later.

The governor announced Monday evening that 40 roads had been closed due either to flooding or downed trees and branches, particularly along the shoreline.