71. Vortex

October 22, 2012

Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Nicaragua

The waters of the Caribbean had been unusually warm over the last week, due to a tropical wave that had blown across the Atlantic from the coast of Africa. At some point on that particular Monday, the air over the surface of the waves here began to move, forming a cyclone — small, at first, but growing quickly, as the strength of its winds built to 40 miles per hour. The United States’ National Weather Service had been monitoring the disturbance, and now gave it a name: Tropical Storm Sandy.

As the phenomenon moved steadily north, soaking Jamaica, and triggering mudslides in Haiti, its strength continued to grow. On October 24th, the swirling vortex that was now inching its way toward Florida was officially re-christened: Hurricane Sandy.

Passing along the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas, its outer bands dragged thunderstorms over the mainland United States, but at first, Sandy’s eye remained well offshore. Its strength waned — so much that it technically wasn’t a hurricane at all anymore, as it moved up the coast on the 27th. But meteorologists began to grow concerned about a rare set of circumstances at play that could still bring disaster: what Sandy lacked in strength, it made up for in reach. The storm was huge, its winds covering an area of over 1,000 miles — the second-largest Atlantic storm on record. And at the same time, there was a full moon: the surge of water brought in by Sandy was going to rise just a bit higher, cresting levels it wouldn’t have on other days. Worst of all, there was an anomalous area of cold, high-pressure air lying right in its path, in the North Atlantic. Projections showed that if the storm did not change course, the two zones would collide — and then Sandy would be diverted Northwest, regaining intensity as it passed over the gulf stream, just before making landfall somewhere in the Northeast United States.

Newtown, Connecticut

The heavens churned. Workers pulled in the floating docks on Lake Zoar, and opened the floodgates at Shepaug Dam. Downstream on the Housatonic, at the south end of Sandy Hook, Stevenson Dam opened up too — lowering the Lake Zoar reservoir as far down as Connecticut could allow, in preparation for the coming storm.

On the morning of Monday the 29th, the governor ordered all non-emergency traffic off of the highways, as the first sounds of snapping tree branches, the weakest among them, began to swell all over Connecticut.

At 1:30pm, Newtown’s first selectman issued a “CODE RED” broadcast to the townspeople: the storm was going to be bad. The emergency shelter would be set up at Newtown High School as soon as it passed. Power outages were expected, and with the size of Sandy, and the damage it was expected to inflict statewide, it could be days before electricity was restored.

* * *

Just before midnight, Superstorm Sandy made landfall, 150 miles south of Sandy Hook, near Atlantic City, in the town of Brigantine, New Jersey. The cyclone then drifted north, and inland, its eye curving around the western border of Connecticut — with strong winds thoroughly battering Fairfield County.

At Main Street and Church Hill Road, Newtown’s rooster weather vane swung north, and the flagpole shook violently in the gale — absent its gold sphere on top, yet standing against forces that would likely have felled each of its previous incarnations. The flagpole did not break.

The larger tree branches began to snap, and then whole trees — a great cracking sound that pierced over the swirling winds. At the west end of town, a woman narrowly avoided being crushed by a thick pine trunk as it fell through the roof of her mobile home. At the Newtown Country Club, a 40-foot branch plowed into the green on the 8th hole. Across town, where Berkshire Road leads west through Sandy Hook, a bolt of lightning struck; an underground wire there became energized, and on the street above, steam began to rise from where the rain fell on a 100-foot section of pavement that was beginning to melt. Up the road, a fire engine was pulling out of the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire Department’s substation when a heavy log came crashing through its windshield. The firefighters had ducked just in time — above them, the truck’s cab was pulverized.

All over town, the power lines began to fall, pulling connecting poles down with them. Street by street, the lights went out, a wave of black spreading over Newtown. Garner Correctional Facility went into emergency lockdown, with every prisoner shut in their cell until the lights were restored. Every house in Newtown and Sandy Hook went dark that night, as the storm raged outside.

Superstorm Sandy continued north, its vortex slowing as it crossed Pennsylvania, until the rain and winds finally dissipated, somewhere in the skies over upstate New York.

October 30, 2012

The sun rose over a wounded Newtown. Most roads were inaccessible, with debris scattered everywhere and power poles listing to one side. Every traffic light was dead, and many roofs had been stripped bare.

At 3:00pm on the 30th, Pat Llodra sent out another CODE RED alert: they were opening the Municipal Center at Fairfield Hills, as both a backup shelter and emergency command post. Anyone was welcome to come down and use the generators to charge their phones, or log onto the WiFi to check in with family. Meanwhile, she assured the town that “thousands” of workers were being dispatched to methodically clear the roads, one by one, and restore power to places like Newtown. But it was going to take time; for some customers of Connecticut Light & Power, it could be days.

And, they had to prioritize; when 97 percent of the town lost power in the 2011 storm, Pat Llodra said it was only “divine intervention” that had somehow kept the power on at Garner prison… but they hadn’t been so lucky this time. Generators would power its emergency lights for a time, and the locks could be operated manually, but there was no way they could sustain the daily operations of the prison without electricity. If the security system there wasn’t back online soon, the town knew, they could find themselves dealing with two disasters.

When the repair trucks came, everyone else would have to wait.

The temperature sank to the low 30’s during the dark nights after Sandy, before the modern luxuries flickered back to life. Governor Malloy had already requested that President Obama declare a state of emergency, which was granted, and when Obama asked Malloy to invite local representatives to participate in a conference call on the morning of November 1st, the governor invited Newtown’s first selectman. During the call, Pat Llodra took the opportunity to express frustration at the fact that so many roads were still blocked, and so many homes still in the dark. “We’re here on day four,” she told the president, from her office in the fixed-up old hospital ward. “This is inexcusable.”

* * *

By the 5th, power was restored to most of the town. The roads were cleared, and the traffic lights were back on. The everyday hum of modern civilization returned, and things soon felt like they were back to normal. And as scary as it was, the storm could have been worse; the property damage was extensive, but the townspeople themselves had all been spared any serious harm.