NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Local and state officials began preparing Thursday for the possibility that Hurricane Sandy will deliver another blow to Vermont a little more than a year after Tropical Storm Irene delivered its own fury.
Whether the storm, which on Thursday was a Category 2 storm and steaming toward the Bahamas, will hug the east coast and move inland remains to be seen. Forecasters said it was too early to tell, but some models indicated a high chance it would impact the Northeast.
Still, information provided by the National Weather Service prompted Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette to convene area public safety officials to begin planning
"Last night the national weather service started sending out emails advising us of the potential for significant weather," Doucette told the gathering, which included Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt, local fire, Bennington Rescue and town and state highway officials. "At first there was just talk of it and it was about a 10 percent chance. As of this morning it appears it is about a 60 percent chance that Sandy will hit us."
Doucette said state officials are warning that the storm could potentially cause more damage than Irene. "I did receive a call this morning from Vermont Emergency Management and what the National Weather Service out of Albany (N.Y.) is saying is there potential for this storm to be worse than Irene," he said.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday that he and his administration are also prepping for the potential impact of Sandy.
"We're working with the National Weather Service and with the Emergency Management team to make sure that we're prepared for the worst, and we're hoping for the best. It's obviously too early to tell what exactly is going to hit us, but I am already asking Vermonters to use this weekend to bring in the lawn chairs, anything that would blow around," Shumlin said. "What they're projecting is the possibility of high winds and high rain volume. We're hoping it blows out to sea. Meanwhile, we'll be watching it very, very closely. I'm getting updates every few hours and we will certainly give Vermonters fair warning if they need to take action."
Shumlin said the state and municipalities moved quickly to begin rebuilding after Irene washed out bridges and roads. The state's infrastructure is stronger, he said, but it will still have a breaking point in a particularly strong storm.
"It depends what hits us. All I can say is there's no doubt in my mind that we have rebuilt the state better than the way Irene found us. Our culverts are bigger our bridges are higher and our roads are in better shape. But, if we really get whacked, nothing can withstand a really tough storm like Irene," he said.
Doucette asking the local officials at Thursday's emergency planning meeting to begin thinking of additional steps that should be taken. The group is planning to meet again today.
"You sit here and say to yourself, ‘What could be worse than Irene?' Obviously, we're going to see a lot more water, and this time there is the potential for sustained winds of 50-plus mph by the time the storm hits here, if it follows the track they think it's going to," he said.
The latest information available Thursday from NWS indicated that the storm, if it tracks to the east, would cause loss of power. Residents should plan to have emergency supplies, food and alternate sources of heat and electricity, Doucette said. The storm could impact the state from Monday through Wednesday, he said.
"We need to prepare now. Not only do we need to prepare, but we invited the media here to get the word out that our residents need to prepare for the worst and pray that it just goes by us or goes out to sea," he said.
"The bottom line is, people need to have the supplies they think they need for up to a week plus," Doucette added. "I would ask that people not wait until Saturday."
Doucette raised concerns with a temporary bridge that spans the Roaring Branch in Woodford. The original bridge washed out during Irene, cutting off Woodford for days. He asked state Agency of Transportation officials at the meeting if the temporary bridge could withstand high winds and swift flood waters. The answers was not reassuring. "We'll find out," said one AOT official.
Doucette said he would move to close the bridge if the storm hits and water begins to rise. "I just don't want any major catastrophes up there. I understand that's in (Vermont State Police) territory, but obviously we would be there much quicker and would do what we need to do to help," he said.
Town Highway Superintendent RJ Joly asked that residents refrain from putting leaves and other lawn debris in drainage areas.
"That would cause a huge problem. All the storm drainage system would get plugged up," he said. "Residents should know they shouldn't put leaves in the road. It would plug everything up."