Perils lurk in Irene’s wake

Flooded rivers, downed wires still plague parts of region

Get Adobe Flash player
By Peter Schworm and Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / August 30, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

The storm-swept region confronted the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene yesterday, laboring to restore washed-out roads and farms in Western Massachusetts and repair downed power lines across the state that left nearly half a million residents without electricity a second day.

A 52-year-old Southbridge man was electrocuted when he touched a railing on his porch that had come into contact with a downed wire.

His death was the state’s first casualty linked to Irene, which is responsible for 40 deaths in 11 states, according to the Associated Press. At least three people have died in Vermont, which is battling its worst flooding in perhaps a century, and two died in Connecticut.

The storm, which churned through Massachusetts Sunday afternoon, caused flooding along the Connecticut River, particularly around the western towns of Greenfield and Northampton, where 30 homes in a low-lying neighborhood were evacuated yesterday.

In rural towns along the Vermont border, many roads remained impassable, and officials warned that swollen rivers in the Springfield, Mass., area would remain a threat today.

“That’s ground zero for the flooding,’’ said Scott MacLeod of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

With the return of sunny, dry weather, life in the Boston area generally fell back into its regular rhythm for many. But from debris-strewn streets to uprooted trees, the storm left a litany of woes in its wake.

In Boston, cranes pulled fallen trees off roofs, and suburban lawns were littered with limbs. In coastal Westport, a long waterfront stretch was damaged by a storm surge.

Governor Deval Patrick, after surveying the damage in Western Massachusetts and along the Vermont border, said that “extraordinary flooding’’ had inundated large swaths of land and in one instance washed away a covered bridge in Greenfield, a town of 18,000.

“It’s a remarkable thing more people were not hurt,’’ Patrick said.

He urged people to remain cautious and treat all downed wires as if they were live.

In the morning, National Guard and emergency response teams fanned out across the state to assess the damage in 70 communities from Adams to Buzzards Bay. There were no immediate cost estimates.

In hard-hit Greenfield, the storm, which wreaked havoc from the Carolinas to New England, caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage along a 100-year flood plain. Thick mud poured into low-lying neighborhoods, forcing dozens of families from their homes.

“Well, I don’t think I have much of anything left now,’’ said Ken Griffin, as he sloshed through his water-logged hallway in sandals. Griffin, a 58-year-old factory worker, had just learned his Cape-style home was among dozens that inspectors declared uninhabitable.

Griffin said he would have to discard most of his belongings and go to live with his daughter.

Nicole Zabko, the town’s public health director, who assessed the damage with a small team of health and building inspectors, said many homes’ furnaces and hot water tanks were submerged. About 160 people stayed in two schools that served as emergency shelters.

“The speed of the flooding was stunning to us,’’ said Mike Lyon, fire chief in Greenfield.

Bill Simpson of the National Weather Service said some sections of Western Massachusetts received nearly 9 inches of rain in just 10 hours. Over that span, the Westfield River rose from 4 feet to nearly 20 feet, he said.

“That’s almost unprecedented,’’ he said.

In Vermont, state officials said some 250 roads were damaged in widespread flash flooding and many were impassable. At Killington Resort, a popular ski lodge in Vermont, a building was swept off its foundation and crews were assessing the damage.

In Providence, widespread blackouts had relented, but officials said it would be some time before power was completely restored.

The storm victim from Southbridge, Richard V. Gorgone, was a veteran public works employee who was well liked by friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

“He was a single dad trying to make his way in the world,’’ said Christopher Clark, Southbridge’s town manager. Gorgone had worked as a jack-of-all-trades with the town since 2000, Clark said.

Authorities said Gorgone was electrocuted when he touched a front-porch railing that had been electrified when a power line snapped off a utility pole and landed on the roof. He was discovered by his girlfriend about 5:30 a.m. and pronounced dead at the scene.

“It’s been a terrible day,’’ said a man outside his home yesterday who described himself as Gorgone’s future son-in-law. Gorgone’s daughter, who accompanied the man, declined to comment.

Neighbor Barbara Jernigan said Gorgone “always had a smile.’’

“He would sit in his driveway and wave at you,’’ she said.

In Westport, on the state’s southern coast, the storm washed out a long stretch of beach road and hundreds of adjacent lots where summer residents live in oceanside trailers.

John Gifford, a reserve Westport police officer, said local officials told trailer owners to clear their lots in advance of Irene to minimize damage. But sheds and porch structures left were swept away by the storm surge.

“The water went right over [the barrier] and ended up in the river,’’ Gifford said, pointing to the Westport River on the opposite side of the road.

Nearby, fist-sized rocks that had formed a barrier along the beach were strewn across the roadway. In places, the asphalt had buckled.

“I was worried about the road,’’ said Pat DiBonaventura, who lives on the water with her husband, Richard.

“We’re hoping that they clear it off and let us pull our trailers back. I’m not ready to go back to Florida.’’

In Marshfield, a temporary dam built to bolster a sea wall withstood the pounding, although the barrier of sand and rock is “pretty much gone,’’ said Paul Taber, the town’s emergency management director.

Bruce Carlisle, director of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, said initial reports suggest the state’s beaches sustained only minor to moderate erosion from the storm. He said most of the erosion appears to have occurred in Buzzards Bay and the south-facing areas of Cape Cod and the islands.

“It was a pleasant surprise,’’ said Sue Moynihan of the Cape Cod National Seashore. “We thought the storm surge would create a problem.’’

David Abel, Brian Ballou, and Erin Ailworth of the Globe staff, and correspondent Jennette Barnes, contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at Follow him on twitter @GlobePete.