August 29th, 2011 | City

New Haven struggles to dig out of Irene’s aftermath

Mayor John DeStefano Jr., flanked by aldermen and public safety officials, briefed the media on the city's progress in responding to Hurricane Irene.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr., flanked by aldermen and public safety officials, briefed the media on the city's progress in responding to Hurricane Irene. Photo by Alon Harish.

While sunny skies and balmy weather made Hurricane Irene feel like a distant memory on Monday, the city was still struggling to clear fallen trees from dozens of streets and restore power to thousands of residents who have been in the dark since the storm hit early Sunday.

At a press conference Monday afternoon held near a massive downed tree blocking State Street at Edwards Street in East Rock, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. thanked residents for their patience as crews continue a cleanup effort that could last all week. About 17,000 homes and traffic signals at 55 traffic intersections in New Haven remain without power, United Illuminating vice president John Prete said at the press conference, adding that he could not predict when power would return to the entire city.

“I know you’re frustrated — we’re doing everything we physically can to get your power back as quickly as possible,” Prete said. By midnight Monday night, the company hopes to be able to provide residents with estimated restoration times, he said.

Zero injuries and minimal property damage made New Haven a relatively fortunate victim of the storm, which whipped up devastating winds and waves that reduced several homes in East Haven to rubble and caused the death of at least two Connecticut residents.

Statewide, power outages have decreased from about 775,000 at the storm’s peak to about 680,000 Monday evening. After a shutdown Saturday night, Metro-North rail service resumed on a limited basis Monday evening. According to the state department of transportation website, full service to New York is expected to be restored Tuesday morning with the exception of the New Canaan, Waterbury and Danbury branch lines.

New Haven’s cleanup operations have already cost the city $500,000 in overtime, DeStefano said, and will likely end up costing over $1 million, most of which he expects to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Crews from Kansas City, North Carolina, Indiana and Canada are assisting United Illuminating crews in restoring power to homes in the Greater New Haven area, Prete said. A total of 70 tree crews and 90 power line crews are currently working, he said.

The city’s top priority is clearing tree debris from the roads, DeStefano said, adding that eight streets were blocked and dozens more were obstructed by fallen trees Monday afternoon. 221 city workers in 47 crews are working nearly 24 hours a day and will continue working nearly the entire week, he said.

In a stark contrast to the city’s much-criticized response to January’s crippling snowstorms, aldermen praised the DeStefano administration’s efforts in preparing for and cleaning up after Irene.

Perhaps the most vocal critic of the city’s snow response efforts, Ward 9 Alderman Matt Smith ’98 said the city has done a much better job during Irene of keeping both aldermen and their constituents informed about the storm. Since Sunday at 9 a.m., DeStefano has conducted several conference calls with aldermen and state legislators, Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark said, that helped keep officials “in the loop.”

“The communication has been exceptional,” Smith said, adding that he plans on going door to door to distribute flyers updating Ward 9 residents about the city’s progress, given that an email would not reach the majority of his East Rock constituents who remain without power.

The city’s response also won the applause of State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (D-New Haven), who spoke after DeStefano at the press conference against the backdrop of a crew beginning to remove the downed tree on State Street.

“All hands are on deck,” said Looney, who is himself without power. “We’ll get through this together.”

There have been no incidents of looting reported during the storm, New Haven Police Department Chief Frank Limon said. Still, 100 police officers will be on duty throughout the night Monday, focusing on parts of the city with more severe power outages.