Tropical Storm Irene took some of the sting out of Hurricane Sandy.
That was one of several explanations offered Tuesday as the city, with the exception of some power outages, clearing downed trees and pumping out basements, returned to life as usual.
The schools were still closed Tuesday, but director of public works David Picozzi wasn’t alone in suggesting Irene felled a number of weakened and older trees and left the stronger ones to stand up to Sandy. There was help as well from homeowners, city crews and utility companies that made an effort to ensure they were safe from trees and limbs in the wake of Irene.
“National Grid put in a big effort to take down trees and branches along their lines,” said Picozzi.
A member of the state Department of Transportation that responded to a downed limb on Main Avenue agreed. The branch brought down electric wires and closed the major east-west artery until mid-morning Tuesday. State crews could not clear the road until National Grid cleared away the lines. Crew members said conditions would have been far worse had Irene not taken care of a lot of “the dead wood.”
But there were many other suggestions why life as usual resumed so quickly in Warwick in the wake of the largest storm on record to hit the mid Atlantic.
First, although there were sustained winds of 30 to 50 miles per hour, Rhode Island received a brush of Sandy’s skirt and not the full force blow that hit New Jersey and New York City.
Then there wasn’t the storm surge so feared by shore residents, emergency personnel, city and state officials and stressed by the media. Coupled with a moon high tide at 8:22 p.m. and winds from the southeast, a wall of water was expected to submerge vast sections of Oakland Beach, Conimicut, Arnold’s Neck, Warwick Neck and Potowomut. Residents of those areas reported the highest waters about 6:45 p.m. and they were receding when the tide came in.
Prepared for the worst, Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong, the city’s emergency management director, asked Picozzi to have front end pay loaders ready to evacuate Conimicut homes surrounded by three-foot waters. The machines were driven up to the houses and people were told they could ride in the pay loader bucket if they wanted to leave. None did.
Mayor Scott Avedisian thinks one of the major factors of the rebound was that everyone was ready.
“We were prepared for the worst, and it didn’t happen,” he said Tuesday afternoon.
At that time, the Toll Gate Complex of a senior and junior high school and the Drum Rock Early Education Center were still without power. Nonetheless, Avedisian’s inclination was to open schools Wednesday. The school’s power was back on by the time staff arrived Wednesday morning.
At the height of the storm, Avedisian said about 10,000 Warwick residents were without electricity.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” the mayor said of fire, police and public works. He lauded them for their response. He also gave credit to the residents of Warwick.
“The fact this was hyped up to such an extent,” he said “nobody was out there, and that made it easier.”
There were some thrill-seekers and some people curious and anxious about their neighborhoods, but not many. Police and public works crews closed Rocky Point where waves, in a spectacular show of force, sent water flying over the walkway. The overlook at the end of Beach Avenue in Conimicut was a popular spot, and those attempting to reach the Oakland Beach seawall found the road blocked by sanitation trucks.
Bay waters rose above Irene’s surge, flooding basements and closing low-lying streets. Police cruisers blocked many of the roads.
The Narragansett Bay end of Samuel Gorton Drive in Longmeadow was one of the streets where waves broke on the asphalt. About a dozen people gathered to look at the rollers beyond and amazed at the home where water lapped at the porch steps while the residents could be seen watching a wide screen TV inside. One of the spectators suggested calling a news crew so the residents could watch themselves watching the storm.
It wasn’t comical on Country Club Drive. When a giant tree was uprooted, miraculously falling between a garage and a house, it also brought down a transformer and bent and splintered utility poles down the line, like dominos. Councilman Steve Colantuono, who lives across the street, said the tree came down about 2:30 p.m. Soon after, National Grid was on the scene. At one point there were six trucks. A crew from Illinois worked through the night. By mid-morning, the heavy work was done but power still hadn’t been restored.
Sandy also provided the city its first test of Code Red, which the city acquired in recent weeks. The $19,000 system has a database of about 34,000 phone numbers. It also provides for registration through the city’s website so people can receive notices by cell phone, text and email. Armstrong said the information allows the city to get out emergency notices in less than two minutes, as it did to 238 homes in flood-prone areas Monday. He said 68 percent of them responded.
Police Chief Col. Stephen McCartney, who was out surveying conditions Monday during the storm, was back on the road Tuesday morning. He remarked on the mood of people.
Considering some were faced with fallen trees and others pumping out their basements, he concluded, “People seemed to be in pretty good dispositions.”
The storm surge was his major concern, especially when reports came in from Burnett Road in Highland Beach of rising waters about 5 p.m. Thinking it was going to only get worse, he was gearing up for major evacuations. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary.
On Tuesday, McCartney said the biggest issue was power. Police were needed to direct traffic at the intersection of Oakland Beach Avenue and West Shore Road as well as Warwick Avenue and Sandy Lane. By Tuesday afternoon, National Grid had signals at both intersections powered again. McCartney was delighted with the hard work of DPW crews.
“They were working like real soldiers cleaning up the streets,” he said.
Picozzi said it was all accomplished without bringing in contractors. Sanitation and recycling collections were postponed by a day, freeing those people to handle the cleanup.
Picozzi’s brother, Frank, who runs his own business and is a former member of the School Committee, had this insight to offer in an email:
“I took a ride around the city to assess the damage,” he wrote. “The devastation is incredible. It's going to take months to get all the leaves back on the trees!!”