Scituate damages will total millions

60-foot section of sea wall ruined; town to seek aid

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By Jessica Bartlett and Jenna Russell
Globe Correspondent | Globe Staff / December 29, 2010

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SCITUATE — Residents of this battered coastal town picked through piles of soaked and windblown belongings yesterday, in living rooms littered with sand and broken glass, as they began cleaning up after the powerful weekend nor’easter.

Town officials said yesterday that they expect damage estimates to climb into the millions in Scituate, where howling winds and massive waves shattered doors and windows, ripped porches off houses, and punched out a 60-foot section of a massive concrete sea wall.

The broken, ice-coated slabs, each one 8 feet tall and 3 or 4 feet thick, lay in a pile in the sand yesterday, the now-calm ocean sparkling through the gap behind them.

“You hear about storms, and then you live through one of this magnitude,’’ John Danehey, chairman of Scituate’s Board of Selectmen, said during a press conference yesterday at Town Hall.

The sea wall “looks like a stack of dominoes, and the ocean just pushed this thing over,’’ he said. “It’s baffling, and you kind of look at it in awe.’’

Town and state officials inspected the broken wall yesterday, and said they will seek state and federal funds to repair it, a task made urgent by the possibility that another winter storm could further damage unprotected houses.

Local officials also announced plans to scrutinize the response of National Grid to the storm and to schedule a public hearing where the electric utility will be held accountable for delays that town leaders said hampered their own public safety efforts and may have endangered firefighters as they battled two blazes in flooded houses.

Fire Chief Rick Judge said a 13-hour delay between his first calls to National Grid on Sunday night and the arrival of crews in town the next morning forced him to use limited staff to “baby-sit’’ downed wires.

“At 3 a.m., when the ocean started coming over the walls, we basically had to abandon the wires and go evacuate people,’’ he said at the press conference. “Obviously, they were unprepared and understaffed.’’

Firefighters who donned protective suits and waded into chest-deep water to fight two raging fires on 7th Avenue in the middle of the storm had to do so without knowing for certain whether they would be electrocuted by live wires, said state Representative James M. Cantwell, who represents Scituate.

“It’s most upsetting that people were put needlessly at risk,’’ Cantwell said.

Debbie Drew, a spokeswoman for National Grid, acknowledged last night that the company had some issues during the storm, but said the magnitude of the blizzard, which downed 500 power lines on the South Shore alone, made it a challenge.

“Our performance on the wire-down issue could have been better, and we apologize,’’ she said. “We will continue to work with the fire chiefs to remedy the situation and improve communications and this performance.’’

She said the company is looking into the concerns about the house fires in Scituate. ’’We would never deliberately be unresponsive or put anyone in jeopardy,’’ she said.

Several streets remained under water yesterday in the Sand Hills section of town, where a handful of houses looked like islands and smoke from the fires still drifted in the air. The cause of the fires remains unknown, the fire chief said.

As if safety officials were not busy enough, Scituate was hit with another fire last night, a three-alarm blaze that damaged a bus repair shop on New Driftway.

About 1,000 homes were still without power yesterday, as a dozen National Grid crews worked to restore electricity. Town workers began assessing damage to buildings and using heavy equipment to clear roads clogged with sand and debris.

A few residents who fled their homes lingered at a shelter set up at Scituate High School, while most others had sought shelter with friends and family.

For some who fled their homes in the dark early Monday morning, clothes piled in their arms and adrenaline surging, the reality of their predicament structural damage that could take months to fix began to sink in under the stark seaside sunlight yesterday.

On Turner Road, bulldozers idled in the road between mountains of displaced sand and broken timbers, rubberneckers snapped pictures, and two men in a pickup truck handed out fliers for their basement-pumping business.

Donna Farrington stood outside her waterfront home and recalled how a wave crashed through her back door at the height of the storm, just before she fled with her husband and young daughter.

Yesterday, the couple dealt with the aftermath: hiring a plumber to drain their pipes, figuring out where to stay for the foreseeable future, and salvaging a few treasures, including a letter their daughter wrote to Santa, which Farrington found, soaking wet but intact, mixed in with the sand and glass shards on the floor.

“I don’t know if it’s really hit us or our daughter,’’ she said. “It is upsetting that’s our house but I’ve been so touched seeing how nice people are, our friends and neighbors, the police and firefighters, even strangers.’’

Because their home sits beside the broken sea wall, Dan Farrington said, they will have to wait to make repairs until the wall can be shored up.

The unexpected damage to the Sand Hills sea wall raises concerns about other ocean barriers in town, said Cantwell. “There could be other structures in worse shape.’’

Cantwell said early estimates of sea wall damage from the storm up and down the coast, including breaches in Plymouth and Marshfield, suggest the statewide total could top $1 billion.

And as long as the gap remains open, said Danehey, the selectman, the risk of other breaches is increased.

Still, the Farringtons, who live beside the ruined sea wall, said they haven’t thought of moving farther away from the sea.

“It’s a dream to live by the water,’’ Donna Farrington said. ’’And, aside from the water, it’s a great neighborhood.’’

Jenna Russell can be reached at

Snow cleanup cost
Massachusetts transportation officials estimate the snowstorm cost $14.4 million to clean up:

■ $10.9 for plowing equipment.
■ $2.8 million for sand and salt.
■ $650,000 in overtime.

SOURCE: State House New Service