'Absolutely devastating:' Town leaders assess damage of May 15 storm
Houses were hit by trees — three, at least — wires were down, people were trapped in cars, roads were closed, school was canceled, and outbuildings, cars and other property were damaged by the violent storm that moved quickly through town Tuesday, May 15.
“Fortunately, no injuries reported,” said Ridgefield Emergency Management Director Richard Aarons.
“On North Salem Road there were a couple of vehicles that were compromised there,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “Although perhaps not life-threatening in retrospect, very scary and concerning while the event was taking place — especially when the occupants really don’t know what’s happening.”
Freeing people from cars and “make safe” operations — de-electrifying downed wires, opening up roads blocked by tangled wires — was the top priority in the storm’s aftermath.
The most dangerous situations were addressed, schools reopened and buses rolled on Friday. But the work of restoring electricity to blacked-out neighborhoods and re-opening roads blocked by fallen trees and limbs lasted into the weekend.
On Sunday, up to 90% of outages had been addressed, but the last homes didn’t get power back until Tuesday of this week.
The storm was judged a “macroburst,” which also hit Danbury, Brookfield, New Fairfield, and Newtown very hard— and some areas of Connecticut reported tornadoes.
“Macrobursts can produce as much damage, if not more damage, than a tornado namely because of the wind field can be spread out over a wider or larger area, said Ross Dickman, a meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service at Upton, N.Y. “We were seeing gusts near 100 mph in many locations from this larger scale event — from the lower Hudson Valley through southwestern Connecticut.”
Danbury Airport recorded maximum gusts of 53 mph, but the core of the storm appeared to pass south of the airport, and parts of Ridgefield like the Mamanasco area may have gotten worse winds, according to Aarons.
“I saw several trees that were sheared off at mid-level with long debris paths,” he said.
“Damage seems worse than that caused by hurricane winds.”
Dickman estimated the macroburst winds in Ridgefield reached “speeds close to 100 mph,” with winds reaching over 100 mph in Brookfield.
“We are still evaluating the specifics for the local area,” he added.
Swath of damage
The storm hit in late afternoon, about 4:45.
“We went into damage assessment immediately,” Marconi said.
“The first and most critical response is always the 911 situations, and critical infrastructure,” Marconi said. “Critical would be defined as the fire station, ambulance service and police, medical facilities, Laurel Ridge rehab center, Ridgefield Crossing, senior housing locations, etc.
“And those are listed with Eversource as E-911 calls, meaning they’re top priority.
“And at that point we had one, maybe two or three Eversource crews in town, addressing all those situations — a tree on a car, people pinned in a car, wires on a car, that type of thing,” Marconi said.
Ridgefield’s peak outage was 2,632 electrical meters, according to Aarons, though some were out only briefly.
With an average household of three, 2,000 meters out represents more than 6,000 Ridgefielders.
“Although the north part of Ridgefield saw extensive tree damage and wires down, we were still able to get that cleaned up in 48 hours to allow school to reopen,” Marconi said.
“Thursday, the day was spent verifying the safety for school buses and for areas of school bus stops — to be sure all wires were grounded and we had reduced to a level of satisfaction any danger associated with having school,” Marconi said.
The Press received reports of houses hit by trees on Mamanasco Road, Old Sib Road and Seventh Lane.
Aarons said he had a “confirmed count” of two houses with “structural damage” of major significance.
“I have no idea how many had non-structural damage — crushed decks, missing shingles, damaged out-buildings, etc.,” he said. “Several houses had trees leaning on them, without major structural damage. Also, several damaged cars …
Many roads were closed.
“We had, certainly, about 15 roads that were totally closed, blocked, inaccessible for fire apparatus, school buses or even residents in the area,” Aarons said. “Most of those roads were in the Lake Mamanasco area — Old Sib, Mamanasco, Christopher Drive. Absolutely devastating.”
The number is higher counting roads that were partially blocked — a tree or limb down, but cars could squeeze by.
“I think we probably had 20 to 25 road closures, meaning impassable,” said Marconi. “Some of them were passable with enough room to get by. … One-way traffic was possible.”
In addition to a swath of destruction — mostly in the Mamanasco area, Old Sib Road, Pond Road, North Salem Road and North Street toward Limestone Road — there were trees down in other areas, blocking Cedar Lane and New Road near Fulling Mill Lane.
“We did have strong winds throughout town,” Marconi said.
As of Sunday night, Aarons said, “Ridgefield had 32 broken Eversource poles — they’re poles that were just plain shattered, had to be replaced. There were 41 trees wrapped up in wires. There were 6.4 miles of wires that had to be replaced. There were 18 transformers that had to be replaced, and there were 10 roads that Eversource had to work with their tree crews and line crews to open up. …
“That does not count an equal number of miles of telephone and cable company wires that had to be restrung, if not replaced altogether.”
Ridgefield’s damage was just a part of the state’s story.
“Friday, the 18th, Eversource reported more than 1,000 broken poles and 200 miles of electric wires to be replaced in Connecticut,” Marconi said.
It was all hands on deck for the town.
“You have roughly 85 paid fire and police, we have close to 60 volunteers in the Ridgefield Volunteer Fire Department, and in our emergency operations center we had to have 30 people — certified emergency response team, or CERTs,” Marconi said.
“We had every employee possible, including volunteers with the Ridgefield Volunteer Fire Department — we thank them for their continuous service,” Marconi said. “The career fire department was constantly on call for a multitude of 911s.
“You only call 911 when you have an emergency,” he added. “Asking when your power will be back is not an emergency. Please!”
The phone number for reporting outages to Eversource is 1-800-286-2000. Town numbers used during townwide emergencies are 203-431-2350 or 203-431-2346.
Aarons said the town highway department expected it could take months for the cleanup of all storm damage to be complete.
There is no total on the storm costs yet, Marconi said, but the town keeps close track in case the state delegation in Washington succeed in getting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help with them.
Emergency Management Director Aarons had a few messages for people in the wake of the storm:
• “Regardless of whether the power is out in your house, you must consider every line potentially energized and therefore very dangerous.,” Aarons said. “You don’t know if your line’s being back-fed by some guy who’s got his generator hooked up poorly.
• Have generators properly installed — and use generators safely, according to manufacturer’s instructions. “Have an electrician install a switch on your house so you can isolate the generator from other circuits, and to prevent your generator from energizing the Eversource lines in the area,” Aarons said.
• Also, do not run generators in the garage or basement, and keep them away from windows or air intake vents. “A family of four in Brookfield nearly died when they ran a generator inside a garage, went to bed,” Aarons said. “One of the family members awoke, realized he or she felt very sick, got the kids and mom and dad out of the house, They were hospitalized — one had to be transmitted to a special facility in New York.”
• Let utility and tree crews do their work. “People have to understand: if you walk anywhere near a bucket truck or a tree crew working, or a line crew — if you walk near those things when they’re working, when they’re elevated — the people in the buckets have to stop what they’re doing, because you’re walking into an area where OSHA requires you to have hard hats.
“If you walk up to these guys and say ‘when am I going to get my power back?’ you’re delaying getting your power back.”
Aarons also urged people to keep their situation in perspective.
“This is no way belittles the real suffering that people had up in the northwest portion of our town,” he said, “but Brookfield, New Fairfield,, Oxford, and Newtown were even worse. New Fairfield had 100% outage. Brookfield, 100% outage, and two dead.”