Weekend Nor’Easter – A Look Back

The March 13th, 2010 nor’easter will go down in history as one of the most damaging storms in Fairfield County on record. The storm’s devastation (particularly to trees) was worse than Hurricane Gloria in 1985 in lower Fairfield County according to many.

The damage to the electric infrastructure in southwest Connecticut and in New York and New Jersey was the worst on record according to CL&P. I spoke with an official at CL&P earlier today who said in conversations they’ve had with PSE&G and Consolidated Edison, the tri-state area is dealing with its most substantial power disruption. Ever. Including Gloria.

It’s important to note that we’re talking about just a few towns in Fairfield County. As a whole, the number of CL&P customers impacted (110,000) is far below the record set by Gloria (477,000). Gloria struck the entire state from Greenwich to Thompson whereas this past weekend’s nor’easter really only caused damage in a handful of towns west of Bridgeport.
In terms of restoration of power this storm is also one of the worst for CL&P on record with full restoration not occurring for about 6 days (Gloria was 10). Keep in mind the 1973 ice storm (278,000 total outages) also took 6 days for full restoration and Hurricane Bob in 1991 took 4 days (275,000 total outages).

As for statewide damage there is no doubt that Gloria was far worse than this nor’easter. In terms of damage in the towns impacted by the March 2010 nor’easter this storm takes the cake (keep in mind the worst of Gloria was around New Haven and points east). The 3 fatalities in Connecticut related to this storm was the highest from a single storm since Hurricane Bob in 1991.

What was it that made the storm so severe?

The duration of the strong winds was very impressive. Based on the airport observations from White Plains and Long Island (JFK, Farmingdale, and Islip) it appears that lower Fairfield County was dealing with about 6 hours of wind gusts greater than 60 mph. Some locations (particularly on hills, ridges, and beaches) likely saw peak wind gusts to 70 mph. A 6 hour duration of frequent damaging gusts (the typical threshold for damaging wind we use is 58 mph) is extremely impressive. A severe thunderstorm with 60+ mph wind gusts may last a couple minutes — not hours! A hurricane at this latitude would last for about the same amount of time, a few hours (though the winds, obviously, would be stronger). An emergency management guy in Westport told me that there were hours and hours of frequent gusts “to the mid 60s (mph)” at a Yacht Club in town.
Driving through Fairfield County the one thing you notice is the number of uprooted trees versus the number of snapped trees. A local tree expert said that the ratio of uprooted to snapped trees was about 3 to 1. Trees that are uprooted lead to more utility line damage since they are much longer than segments of trees that would snap off in a more typical wind event. A snapped tree may take down a wire but not an entire utility pole.
Another issue was the saturated soil. The soil this time of year is beginning to thaw as winter draws to a close. On top of thawing soil the nor’easter dumped a substantial amount of rain (at least 3″) which saturated the ground. Saturated soil is weaker and makes uprooting a tree much easier. Many of the trees uprooted were spruce or firs which generally have a weaker root system than deciduous trees (like maple, elm, or hemlock). Vegetation is also mainly dormant this time of year so it’s hard for water to be drawn up from the ground which can saturate soil even more than normal.
Though Gloria had stronger winds in lower Fairfield County the tree damage was more substantial in this area, I believe, because of soil conditions. In turn the number of roads closed and overall disruption to the community was worse from this nor’easter than after Gloria in the hardest hit towns.

How was the storm response?

I hate to say it but the response to this weekend’s storm was and is painfully slow. As trees were snapping across Fairfield County at an unprecedented rate, local roads weren’t shut down. Cars traveling down the Merritt Parkway were sitting ducks with hundreds of trees falling all around. CL&P alerted the media Saturday Night that they were pulling their crews off the road at the height of the storm (which was unprecedented) because it was so dangerous. Where was the Governor telling people to stay off the roads? Where was the State Police? CL&P had the sense to get their crews out of the danger but what about everyday people who were unaware of the storm’s ferocity? 2 people died and at least 4 were injured because of falling trees during the peak of the storm.

After the fact, Fairfield County residents have not been shy in expressing their displeasure with CL&P. Additionally, The Day reported that linesmen who work for CL&P complained that the utility kept most of them home Sunday night after the storm ended to avoid paying double time to workers, an allegation CL&P denies. Now an investigation has been launched into CL&P’s response by the Department of Public Utility Control. Governor Rell’s office said they were displeased with the response by CL&P and UI but they didn’t seem to be on the ball themselves in terms of contacting the media or alerting the public during the height of the storm when 2 people died.
254 utility poles needed to be reset by CL&P in this storm. Keep in mind a typical resetting of one pole can take 3-6 hours. In addition, a near record number of road closures made it very difficult to even get to neighborhoods that were hardest hit.

Are we ready for a hurricane?

The incredible amount of damage in just a handful of Fairfield County towns would pale in comparison to a hurricane. Gloria was a weakening category 1 hurricane when it made landfall and still knocked out power to nearly 500,000 customers (some for 10 days!). A strong hurricane would blow Gloria out of the water in terms of outages – and damage!

A substantial hurricane would likely knock power out to well over a million customers in Connecticut and some would likely not get their power back for months. A former director of the state office of Emergency Management told me a couple years ago, “some people wouldn’t be able to put up their Christmas lights” because they didn’t have power following a late summer hurricane. A large hurricane would likely impact New Jersey, New York, and all of New England which would hinder mutual response from neighboring utility companies.

People in Connecticut pay a price for living in beautiful suburbs surrounded by trees. It’s easy to complain about CL&P’s restoration efforts – but chances are if CL&P wanted to cut down every tree on your front yard near a power line people you’d complain about that too.
Town officials in Fairfield County said it took them hours to actually reach a “human being” at CL&P in emergency situations (like the Greenwich cop stuck in his car for hours between live wires). Could the towns not reach the Emergency Management Office? Why wasn’t CL&P in touch with the towns impacted the worst (it was only 8 out of 169), Who was coordinating the state response? Who was the point person at the Governor’s office Saturday night? Why weren’t roads like the Merritt closed? Why wasn’t the media made aware of the severity of the storm to urge people to stay off the roads?

The state needs to decide if it’s worth investing money in improving the infrastructure (especially the power infrastructure) so it’s less vulnerable to a storm like this. Time also should be spent looking at how the state communicates with towns and the media in a crisis whether it’s a well predicted storm or something totally unexpected (to be fair, this weekend’s storm falls somewhere in between). Sadly, it probably won’t be until a big hurricane, when the state’s economy grinds to a halt for weeks or months, that anything happens.

Ryan

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