(Updated.) Crews throughout the city set to work Monday restoring power and clearing streets by disposing of downed trees, including one on State Street that neighbors had for a year worried would topple.
That fallen tree, at the corner of State and Edwards streets, was the backdrop for a Monday afternoon press conference with city and power company officials.
While life, limb and property in New Haven emerged largely unscathed from the storm, over 1,200 city trees bore the brunt of Irene’s wrath—and are the focus of cleanup efforts.
Those trees took down power lines when they fell, leaving 17,000 households without power as of Monday morning and traffic signals darkened at 55 intersections.
John Prete, a senior vice president at United Illuminating, said Monday he could not estimate when power would return to all of New Haven.
In addition to taking out power lines, fallen trees also blocked 8 streets throughout town and obstructed 49 others, Mayor John DeStefano said Monday afternoon.
The fallen timber is the result of Hurricane—later Tropical Storm—Irene, which swept through town Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The storm prompted the boarding up of homes, the opening of emergency shelters, and an evacuation order for 466 homes in Morris Cove. Read Independent storm coverage here, here, and here.
New Haven escaped the storm without any major injuries to people and only minimal property damage, Mayor John DeStefano said. He said damage to and from trees was the most significant of the storm’s effects.
He said Monday that the city had 221 workers out in 47 crews cutting and clearing trees. “We will do that nearly the entire week,” he said. “Nearly 24 hours a day.”
Workers from several city departments, along with contractors, comprise the crews.
“I know you’re frustrated,” said Prete. UI had 60 crews working through the night and had called in workers from around the country and Canada to help out, he said.
The company is looking at about 100,000 man-hours of work, he said. “That’s 50 linemen working for a year.”
He said UI hopes to have an assessment completed by Monday night and be able to estimate when service will return by midnight. He asked for continued patience.
“We’re hopeful by sunset tomorrow to have most trees off the roads,” DeStefano said.
Mayor John DeStefano, at the same event, estimated Irene will cost the city about $1 million. The city has already put out $500,000 in overtime pay to workers, he said. “I’m sure we’ll get to well over $1 million in the week.”
He said he expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will reimburse the city for most of that.
Tree Was Set To Topple?
DeStefano’s comments temporarily silenced the buzz of chainsaws as contractors from C.J. Fucci labored to remove a large tree that fell across State Street early Sunday morning.
Pam Blair, who lives on the second floor of 972 State St., just feet from where the trees leafy canopy came to rest, said the tree fell at 8:20 a.m. She said she was lying down in a back room when it happened.
“I heard a bang,” she said. “I came into the front to see what happened. ... I could see broken power lines.”
Blair said she lost power when the tree fell but the building, which she owns, was not damaged.
The tree is one that SeeClickFix founder and Upper State Street association head Ben Berkowitz has had his eye on for some time. Over a year ago, he put up a SeeClickFix ticket entitled “falling tree?” It was accompanied by a photo in which the tree seemed to be listing dangerously to one side.
“It was substantially leaning out over the street,” Berkowitz said. The city never addressed it and eventually Berkowitz closed the issue.
“I really do regret closing it,” he said. “I should have stayed on the city harder.”
A related SeeClickFix ticket was also put up by Berkowitz. That one called for a repair to a cracked and raised sidewalk around the tree. Berkowitz said he doesn’t think repairs to the sidewalk damaged the tree or caused it to tilt further. It was leaning already, he said.
Down At Dwight’s House
Monday’s press conference followed a similar one Sunday at the corner of Starr and Mansfield streets in Newhallville, where a parks department crew was at work cleaning up a tree that had fallen near the home of Dwight Baker.
Baker, watching as the crew sawed through a dangling branch, said the tree fell at about 10:30 a.m. It coincided with a power line coming down and charring the base of a nearby tree.
Baker, who’s lived in the house for eight years, noted that the tree limb could have landed on his house. “A little different direction would have been problematic.”
Across town, many other homeowners seem to have had similar experiences. DeStefano said that of the more than 1,000 trees affected by the storm, only seven had been reported to have hit houses.
Even with minimal property damage, the city has a lot of work ahead of it, DeStefano said.
“We had three days of preparation, five hours of storm, and now we have a ton of cleanup,” he said. That’s the priority now, he said.
Monday morning trash pickup was canceled as all trash collectors were diverted to hurricane cleanup. All other available city workers would be doing the same, including staff from the Livable City Initiative, the housing authority, and the Board of Education, he said. DeStefano said he also talked to Yale president Rick Levin about enlisting some “Yale assets” to help.
DeStefano said he couldn’t predict when power would return for all of New Haven. “I spoke to the president of UI about the importance of New Haven.”
No power also means no traffic lights in much of the city. DeStefano said that temporary stop signs were being deployed to intersections, turning them into four-way stops. He said extra cops were also being deployed, not for traffic direction but for guarding downed power lines.
Some of the damaged trees are in city parks, city spokesman Adam Joseph said, and the city will be working with neighborhood park groups to clean those areas.
The damage to 1,250 of the city’s trees comes at a time when the city is in the midst of a massive 10,000-tree planting campaign. “These are things we can’t control,” said Joseph.
Why They Fell
Chris Ozyck, tree expert and staffer at the Urban Resources Initiative, the group which is working with the city to plant the thousands of trees, offered his perspective on the tree damage Sunday evening as he was leading a group of Yale students in cleaning up some of the mess.
He said the storm—combined with recent budget cuts to the tree-planting initiative—means the city will again be losing more trees than it’s planting. “This is going to take a hit this year. We’re going back into deficit mode.”
“When a big tree comes down and you plant one tree for that, it takes 50 years” to get to the size of the downed one, Ozyck said. “The best time to plant such a tree is 50 years ago. The next best time is tomorrow.”
Many of the damaged trees seem to belong to species that the city no longer plants, because they are more susceptible to damage. Pear trees, for example, were hit disproportionally hard, Ozyck said. Siberian elms also took some hits, and even the occasional oak tree came down, he said.
Some trees snapped off at the base, which is a sign that they were planted too deep and suffered rot around the bottom, Ozyck said.
“Then you have wind throws,” he said. Trees around here are not used to taking wind from the east, he said. “Almost always, our prevailing winds come from the west.” But in the swirl of a hurricane, trees were blown from a side they had not grown up to brace.
Many trees shed dead branches, he said. “It’s Mother Nature pruning.”
New Haven’s most recent previous weather emergency came last winter, when record-setting snows bombarded the city. At that time, the administration came under fire from neighbors who felt the response to the winter emergency was insufficient. They complained of a lack of information and streets left untouched by plows for days.
DeStefano said Sunday that the city did much more with electronic communication with Irene than during the blizzard. The city did a better job of using “social networks” and contacting aldermen before, during and after the storm, to make sure important information was dispersed, DeStefano said.