Sandy roars in with gusto

City takes first 10 hours in stride, braced for what's to come


Mayor Scott Avedisian was convinced there was school yesterday.

“We could have gotten a full day in today,” he said at a noon meeting of emergency management officials Monday. When tossing around the idea of a parking ban, the mayor suggested they wait until school was out – but it already was.

With workers at their desks at City Hall and trash collected early in the morning, yesterday felt like business as usual in Warwick, aside from the lack of yellow school buses on the streets and all the media hype about the largest storm to ever hit the north Atlantic coast.

Avedisian said he felt obligated to cancel schools yesterday, since every other community chose to do so in the wake of Governor Chafee’s Declaration of Disaster Emergency.

But the weather conditions weren’t as bad as previously anticipated during school hours, which had Avedisian ruminating on the closure of schools. The highest wind gust recorded at Green Airport by late morning was 43 MPH.

But authorities weren’t taking any chances with Hurricane Sandy. She wasn’t to be trusted.

Police Captain Joseph Coffey was in command of the department’s emergency operations center. He said the unit staffed by officers and civilians were keeping an eye on safety issues, logistics, incident planning and communications. Finances were also on his list, as the city must document all storm-related expenses if it hopes to get federal reimbursements.

By mid-morning yesterday truck traffic on Route 95 in Connecticut had been halted and the entire corridor was to be closed by 1 p.m.

Coffey was doubtful that would have an impact on Warwick traffic as the Connecticut border is 23 miles away, but like so many other things, it wasn’t to be discounted either.

A concern voiced Sunday by Col. Stephen McCartney was how police would direct traffic, especially at key intersections such as Hoxsie Four Corners and Airport and Post Road if there is a sustained power outage. McCartney said he had been in contact with the National Guard and that they had promised assistance, as they did last year during Tropical Storm Irene, if necessary.

A Delta flight made it out of Green Airport early Monday, but after that all flights were canceled. Amtrak canceled its schedule and RIPTA stopped service to South County early yesterday and ceased all other operations by late morning. Warwick Mall was closed.

But the city stayed open, although traffic was lighter than usual.

During a 12:30 p.m. conference call with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Association (RIEMA), officials reported that the National Weather Service expected the worst of the storm to hit Rhode Island between 2 and 10 p.m., with some narrowing the window to 4 to 11 p.m. It was the wind and storm surge that had everyone worried, not the rainfall, which would have been most worrisome to communities close to rivers.

Instead, the coastal communities were bracing themselves for the worst. Those at RIEMA said Block Island could see 25- to 35-foot waves off their coast, but rivers wouldn’t overflow their banks like they did back in 2010.

The only potential threat for river flooding, said RIEMA, was near the Pawtuxet, an all-too-familiar occurrence for nearby residents. The major concern was Sandy’s surge that authorities estimated at three to six feet and potentially higher.

That had residents in low-lying coastal areas worried. Prompted by an unusually high tide Monday morning that had waves washing over his seawall, some like Joseph Piscopio spent the day moving furniture to a second level.

The threat of overflowing rivers wasn’t high on executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority Janine Burke’s list of worries.

“The river is not going to be an issue at all,” she said.

Instead, she was more concerned about losing power, and said the Sewer Authority had been testing their generators over the past few days to ensure they would be up to speed. She also said they learned a valuable lesson from Tropical Storm Irene: Communication is key. The mayor agreed, noting that the Sewer Authority would be included in all emergency preparations this year. Burke said they now have radio communication so they can keep the city posted on incidents and vice versa.

Burke also reminded folks with grinder pumps that they will be unable to discharge to the sewer system without power. Other than that, she said, it should be smooth sailing.

“Sad to say, we’re getting good at this,” she said.

The Department of Public Works began handing out sandbags to residents on Sunday, and continued yesterday. As of Monday afternoon, Dept. Director Dave Picozzi said they had handed out roughly 2,000 bags.

The city also announced a new service called CodeRED, which disperses emergency phone calls to those who sign up at a rate of 1,000 calls per minute. Fire Chief Ed Armstrong said about 39,000 Warwick residents had already signed up for the service.

Though a decision to close schools on Tuesday was still up in the air as of press time, emergency officials discussed what would happen to the temporary shelter set up at Warwick Vets High School should students return in class. As of yesterday afternoon, five people had utilized the shelter, which the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross opened Sunday evening. Thayer Arena was designed as a pet shelter.

Avedisian said that crews cleared some downed trees yesterday morning, but overall, the first few hours of the storm went well. Avedisian was glad to see the city get through the first high tide, but was concerned how things would play out during the second high tide on Monday evening. But with everyone working in tandem, Avedisian predicted the rest of the storm would go pretty smoothly; he even received a 5:52 a.m. phone call Monday from the governor, just to check in.

During yesterday’s conference call, officials reported that the National Weather Service predicted the highest wind speeds would occur after 5 p.m. Monday and begin to die down overnight, with wind gusts reaching speeds of 90 mph.

The combination of high winds and high tides would likely cause coastal damage to Southern Rhode Island, said Theresa Murray, director of RIEMA.

Though what Monday night would bring was still uncertain, those at RIEMA were careful to remind local officials that the storm would linger through today.

“We’re not out of it yet,” said Larry Macedo, planning manager for RIEMA. “We still have a long way to go.”

With reports from John Howell

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