HARTFORD, Conn. – Irene was just a late summer shower compared with a Category 3 hurricane that could pack winds of up to 125 mph and would likely destroy 80 percent of Connecticut's trees, knock out electrical power for more than a month and cause $54.2 billion in damages.
And Connecticut is due for a storm of that size within the next few years, meteorologists for the National Weather Service and experts in the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security told a special task force Tuesday. The last storm of that magnitude came 57 years ago.
The experts told Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's task force on Tropical Storm Irene that August's storm brought down about 2 percent of the state's trees and knocked out power to about 1 million people, some for more than a week. But a Category 3 hurricane such as the infamous storm of 1938 and two in the 1950s would be "much more devastating."
"What we've seen with Tropical Storm Irene is nothing compared to a major hurricane," said Doug Glowacki, a state emergency program specialist.
During Tropical Storm Irene, the state had maximum wind gusts of 67 mph, the experts told the panel. But they would top 125 mph in a Category 3 Hurricane. About 1 percent to 2 percent of the state's trees were downed during Irene. In a major hurricane, 70 percent to 80 percent of the trees in the state would be impacted, Glowacki said.
While Irene left an estimated $200 million in property damage, Glowacki said, a major Category 3 storm would cause $54.2 billion worth of damage.
More than 350,000 state residents would be displaced by such a storm, he said. A storm that powerful would also destroy six or more Metro-North train stations, including those in Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven, and knock out power to millions of state residents for at least a month.
The task force was presented with those chilling facts Tuesday from state and federal officials who said a Category 3 hurricane is inevitable and requires planning, said Task Force Co-Chairman Joseph McGee, vice chairman of the Business Council of Fairfield County.
Glenn Field, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service, told the panel that a Category 3 hurricane comes every 69 years, with the last such storm in 1954. Glowacki raised the likelihood that it may "just be a matter of time" before Connecticut is struck again. "We had four major hurricanes in 16 years at one point,'' he said.
"It's clear we have a lot of work to do to prepare for the worst," McGee said. "It is shocking what such a storm would do to Connecticut. Irene was a wakeup call, and we've got to take steps to ensure we start preparing for such a powerful storm to minimize the potentially devastating impact.
"The questions for this panel are, how do we prepare for such an event, and how do we strengthen our infrastructure," McGee said. "A Category 3 Hurricane would have a far worse impact on us now than 57 years ago because we are so much more developed, and we rely so heavily on electric power."
Some of the ideas being considered include vastly expanded tree-trimming programs, more underground power lines, and emergency shelters that could withstand even a Hurricane 4 Category storm of more than 150 mph.
Experts also said the density of trees per mile and population in Connecticut is the highest of any state in the country, and downed tree were the major cause of Irene power outages across the state.
McGee said the panel will meet at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 9 and Nov. 15 in the Capital Building in Hartford. He said a report with recommendations will be submitted to the governor in early or mid-December.