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October 29, 2012
The end of October is starting to get a reputation.

Last year, our area got whacked by an unseasonable snowstorm that knocked out power for days.

Now, we're getting blown around and drenched by Hurricane Sandy.

Even before the storm made landfall Monday evening, local emergency responders had their preparations in motion.

In Charlton, the CERT team started setting up a "storm relief center" at the Senior Center before noon, opening the doors formally at 2 p.m.

"Anybody who doesn't want to stay home can come stay with us," said Tri-EPIC co-chair Terri Gough, noting the plan is to provide food and activities "until the storm increases and people start losing power. Then we'll open a shelter at Charlton Middle School."

"We don't want to have to wait and have people come to a shelter in the midst of the storm," she added.

Across the region, volunteers from the Central Mass. Disaster Animal Rescue Team were put on alert even earlier — notified Saturday they might be needed.

"As of this time [11:30 a.m. Monday], we still do not know the impact of the storm and we have no formal request for services. CMDART remains on standby for potential service for the following communities who have contacted us in the last two days for the possibility of Emergency Animal Sheltering or support services: Fitchburg, Leominster, Worcester, Southbridge."

In Southbridge, the early stages of the storm saw a "watch and see" approach. Emergency Management Director Roland Larochelle said his crew would "do it by need," and was already in contact with the state. Should it need a shelter, the town has a stockpile of gear in place at the Community Center.

Our regional forecast is dominated by wind and rain, but neither were expected to reach the level of severity being predicted for more southerly areas. The National Weather Service was calling for dangerous storm surges and likely flooding in New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and southeastern Pennsylvania, plus coastal New York and Connecticut counties. Inland, blizzard conditions in 16 Appalachian Mountain counties of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. It issued watches for stream and river flooding for our region Sunday, noting this area is likely to see tropical storm-force winds (that is, above 35 mph), but probably not hurricane-force (above 75 mph).

According to the New York Times, New York City started trying to evacuate around 375,000 residents from low-lying areas and shut down the flood-endangered subway system over the weekend. At about the same time, the NWS projected Sandy's track over the course of this week as follows: Landfall in southern New Jersey, go inland through part of Pennsylvania, turn north through New York, and then curve east again through Vermont or southern Quebec, weakening to a tropical depression over time.

Various reports have identified Sandy as the largest hurricane, in physical terms but not wind speed, to hit the region ever, with tropical storm winds covering an area of almost 900 miles in diameter. It hit land officially as a category 1 storm, but some areas were likely to see category 2 or even 3 wind speeds as Sandy's tropical winds combined with colder flows off the land.

On Monday at 1:30 p.m., the NWS website map specifically showed "high wind warnings" stretching as far west as Toledo, Ohio, and as far north as central Maine, with hurricane-force winds along the entire coast from Cape Cod south to North Carolina.

In Southbridge, the first report of a power outage came over the scanner just after that time, affecting a neighborhood off Eastford Road and accompanied by a "bang." The noise was soon identified as a transformer blowing out.

At about the same time, the first tree-in-road report came from Alpine Road near the bridge. An officer observed it was then "impassable, but not huge. One [chainsaw] cut can get it out of the way," and a DPW crew was already en route to handle it.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gus@stonebridgepress.com.

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