AP NEWS

Valley towns still recovering from last year’s tornadoes

May 12, 2019

Greg Martin went to sleep smiling last May 14.

He expected 1,500 people the next day to watch the first Division 1 college baseball game ever to be played in Ansonia’s Nolan Field, with Sacred Heart University set to take on Albany University.

“I had a lot of surprises planned to make this a memorable event,” said Martin, Ansonia’s director of constituent services.

So did Mother Nature.

Martin awoke the next day and checked the weather forecast.

“I saw a map that looked like a Rembrandt painting — forecasting rain, high winds and even a possible tornado,” he said. “I let loose a litany of four letter words before canceling the game.”

Just before 5 p.m. on May 15, the sky turned deadly black. Gale force winds blew and rain fell by the buckets, bringing in a historic storm that downed thousands of trees and left hundreds of thousands without power for days.

The rain and wind were mesmerizing to Tim Richmond, a retired Bridgeport firefighter, watching from his deck seven miles away in Oxford. His 100-foot high Hickory was being torn to shreds — the wind pulling branches upward, twisting and and ripping them off.

First Selectman George Temple was alone in Oxford Town Hall. He sent his employees home upon hearing the tornado threat. Now, he was on his way to the Emergency Center.

“Trees were falling in front of me and behind me,” Temple said. “At one point my car started to race and I realized it was being pulled off the ground. There was devastation all around — Governors Hill, Hogsback, Route 67 — all covered with limbs and power lines. This was not your normal storm. This looked like a war zone. And I’m thinking, where do we even start?”

And his phone kept ringing.

“Some (calls) were from parents worried about their kids in the after school programs,” Temple said. “So I went to each one. The people running the programs were excellent. They kept the kids calm and involved in activities.”

Oxford wasn’t alone. A tornado cut through Skokorat Street in Seymour. Anthony Spinelli, living nearby Heritage Drive, saw his lights flicker, then die.

“I lost some 30-foot high Aspens that came down, but luckily did not hit the house,” he said.

A nearby neighbor’s home was not so fortunate.

“The top section of a 45-high pine came down on his roof,” Spinelli said. “It’s still there.”

Kurt Miller, Seymour’s first selectman, was talking to his chief of staff, Rory Burke, when he heard a strange crackle and pop.

“The next seven minutes was nothing but chaos,” Miller recalled. “Power was out everywhere. Lines and limbs blocked streets. Traffic near Skokorat moved about 2 feet every 20 minutes.”

He drove there, blocked the street with his SUV and, in the pouring rain, directed traffic.

In Oxford, Richmond realized he was needed at the firehouse, where he volunteers.

“It took me three hours to go 2 and a half miles,” he said. “I used my chainsaw a good portion of the way to clear the road.”

“Eversource cut the power to the grid so we could cut the high tension wires lying across the roads with bolt cutters,” Richmond said.

After seeing just one utility truck, Temple called his Congressman Jim Himes.

“I told him, ‘we’ve got to get some help here,’ ” Temple recalled. “He said, ‘I’m on the Public Utilities Committee. I’ll make some calls.’

“The next day we had 67 Eversource trucks out here,” Temple said. “Look, we’re from different political parties (Himes is a Democrat), but my hat goes off to him.”

After the storm, Temple urged residents needing help to call Town Hall. He put Richmond in charge of creating volunteer teams to clean up the yards owned by the elderly and disabled.

Oxford High Football Coach Joe Stochmal volunteered his team for a Saturday clean-up. The Haynes Group provided a dump truck as well as work gloves, safety glasses and helmets. Temple picked up pizzas donated by Zois in Seymour.

“Those kids were wonderful,” Richmond said. “We had them dragging limbs and branches to the curbs while the adults cut them up. This was all about neighbors helping neighbors.”

While Ansonia’s field has dried out and Miller said Seymour was back to normal in a week or so, Temple’s Oxford is still dealing with storm damage.

“We have a lot of timber still down in the woods,” he said. “There’s two ways of looking at it — it could be a natural habitat or it could be fuel for a raging brush fire. I’ve got to decide what to do in the next couple of months. Maybe I let people cut it for firewood.”

He also wants to grind the brush he let residents fill 6 acres with on East Commerce Drive.

And while Oxford applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, Temple said they have not yet received approval.

“The good news is no one was hurt,” he said. “You can fix a home, repair a car but can’t replace life.”