WOONSOCKET — The sunny, warm weather yesterday should have helped to erase memories of Tropical Storm Irene, and that might have been the case were it not for the continuing power outages affecting area residents.
The storm’s aftermath was marked by food spoiling in refrigerators, businesses still waiting for the power to come back on, and residents seeking a respite from the dark of their homes at restaurants lucky to have been spared the loss of electricity.
On Sunday night, fast food restaurants in the Diamond Hill Road area served as unofficial emergency shelters for residents of nearby homes seeking a hot meal.
Food stores had also been able to remain open in the city during the storm as had several of the city’s major retailers not affected by the power emergency.
One man stopping at McDonald’s to get food Sunday night said his wife was on oxygen and their home had been without power for 13 hours at that point. The man did not know how long it would be before power was restored at his apartment complex at the top of Diamond Hill Road.
By Monday evening, the situation was improving with an increased number of local residences regaining power, but a large number of city homes were reported to still be in the dark.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said city crews had been busy with cleanup projects throughout the day Monday but noted the restoration of power remained in the purview of National Grid and its related contractors.
“Right now there is not a whole lot more that we can do. It falls to National Grid to get things back up and running,” Fontaine said. As of 8:30 p.m., an estimated 28 to 30 percent of National Grid’s customers in Woonsocket were still without power. The story was much worse in nearby communities such as North Smithfield, Burrillville, Bellingham and Cumberland where outages were even more widespread.
“Burrillville has a significant number of people without power,” Fontaine said.
The city did have a few highlights of good news even with the continuing reports of power loss, he added. Landmark Medical Center and other local healthcare facilities had power, and the city had been able to get some emergency work completed by National Grid to get the Woonsocket Regional Wastewater Treatment plant back online and off its back-up power generation system.
For those residents still without power, Fontaine said arrangements had been made by the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency for them to find temporary shelter at Cumberland High School if they were in need of such assistance.
Some elderly local residents with medical issues were transported to the school for temporary shelter while the work to restore power continued in their neighborhoods, according to Fontaine.
And while some had pointed to Irene as arriving with less impact that had been forecast for the storm, Fontaine said the ongoing efforts to restore power showed just how dangerous the storm turned out to be.
“It was a significant impact,” Fontaine said. “Just about everyone has a tree down in their yard or has been without power at some point,” he said. Fortunately the storm only wreaked property damage locally and had not resulted in the losses tallied in other states.
“We have to be thankful that we didn’t experience the injuries or loss of life that occurred in other states,” Fontaine said.
Lt. Col. Denis Riel, a spokesman for the Rhode Island National Guard working at the Rhode Island Emergency Management Headquarters in Cranston, also pointed to the lack of serious storm-related injuries from Hurricane Irene as a positive postscript on the natural disaster.
Statewide, Riel said more than 240,000 National Grid customers were still reported to be without power in the aftermath of Irene but that could be countered to a degree by the absence of storm-related deaths or serious injuries.
“I think it shows we did a great job preparing for this event,” Riel said. Rhode Island residents took warnings about the storm’s dangers seriously and stayed home during the peak of its impacts of high winds and heavy rains, he said.
Wind gusts topping 80 miles per hour were recorded at Conimicut Point in Warwick and gusts of over 63 miles per hour occurred around the state for a sustained period of time during the storm, Riel noted.
The fact Irene was such a large storm, covering area of about 500 miles, may have contributed the amount of damage resulting to trees and power lines, Riel said.
“We had very high winds sustained for an incredibly long period of time, 12 to 13 hours, and it took a toll on trees across the state,” he said. In some cases a falling tree would snap three or four poles and create a tangle of lines difficult to clean up.
State and city work crews could not remove downed trees until the power crews had shut off and fixed the related power problems. “We certainly felt the effects of this storm and it was a serious storm for the state,” Riel said.
The National Guard assigned 350 of its members to duty during the storm and covered both cleanup projects with state and municipal crews and also traffic control assistance with members of the Rhode Island State Police at traffic intersections without power around the state.
A Guard unit was on duty with two members of the State Police at the intersections of the east and westbound lanes of Route 99 with Mendon Road where the traffic signal remained out on Monday afternoon.
Riel said approximately 400 traffic intersections were covered in a similar fashion around the state while work continued to restore power to those locations.
Riel said the state Emergency Management Agency would continue to coordinate clean up work with the state’s local communities and hold meetings with officials as needed.
“We are constantly assessing the status of the city and towns and if there is a gap in resources we will respond to fill it,” he said.
Fontaine said Monday that the city will be announcing a program for collecting debris from the storm in the next few days. In the meantime, residents can bring yard debris they have already collected to the recycling center on River Street. A city tag will not be required during the emergency period, he said.
Local students should also be planning to return to school as scheduled on Wednesday. School Committee Chairman Marc A. Dubois said Monday that while a teacher professional day scheduled for Monday at been rescheduled to October as a result of the storm, schools will reopen as scheduled for all students on Wednesday.