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New Canaan: One Year After Irene

NEW CANAAN, Conn. – After many households in New Canaan were without power last year after Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm, the town learned a valuable lesson.

The town as a whole discovered the level of self-preparedness residents must have when dealing with the aftermath of a huge storm, said Mike Handler, emergency operations director for New Canaan. Power was out for more than a week in many New Canaan homes and businesses after Irene.

“Two years ago, before the March (2010) storm, people didn’t take it as seriously as they should. But today, I think people have plans, supplies and a realistic idea of when a storm will hit and (that) they will have to be self-sufficient,” Handler said. “It does a lot to relieve the stress.”

The town’s emergency responders, including volunteers, have worked to hone their skills and master the services they deliver to the town, he said. The emergency management office used reverse 911 calls and a Facebook page to alert residents of power outages, closed roads and where to go for food and water during Irene and last year’s freak October snowstorm.

Handler said he’s still concerned about the lack of large-scale shelter for the town. He’s hoping New Canaan will purchase a generator to provide power throughout Saxe Middle School or New Canaan High School during a long-term outage. A generator would cost about $1 million. Currently, the town uses the Lapham Community Center in Waveny Park, but that facility can host only about 35 residents, Handler said.

“You can’t shelter 500 people in a gymnasium in August on a hot day without air conditioning,” he said. “I know it’s expensive, but it’s something have to have.”

Thousands of households across Fairfield County were left without power last year by Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm. Government agencies and utility companies have spent the past year focusing on how to reduce outages if another big storm hits.

The majority of outages during the two storms was caused by downed trees, said Mitch Gross, spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power. As a result, the utility that provides power to most of the state has spent about $100 million this year trimming trees.

“We continue to be diligent about pruning trees as needed," Gross said.

More than 809,000 customers lost power after the October storm, and Irene knocked out power to more than 700,000. Reports found that the worst-case scenario CL&P had planned for was 100,000 outages.

Connecticut and its utility companies have also established “make-safe crews” that will go in before restoration crews to make sure roads are cleared of trees and live wires, said Scott DeVico, of the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

These crews should help speed up power restoration in areas hit by storms, he added.

Communication has been another priority for CL&P, which has established liaisons with cities and town to share tools and information more quickly.

“A lot of hard work has gone into making sure that we’re prepared to respond to large-scale emergencies,” said Gross "We’ve put our system to the test many times in the past year, and I’m proud to say we’ve been able to demonstrate improved response.”

More than 165 municipalities across Connecticut took part in a four-day statewide emergency preparedness drill at the end of July. “Our initial results show that some of the new plans and communications procedures have been implemented successfully," DeVico said.

Emergency preparedness is an ongoing process, Gross and DeVico said.

“We don’t start preparing once the storm hits,” DeVico said. “We’re preparing all year round."

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