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On Anniversary of October Snowstorm, Hurricane Sandy Looms

Avon town officials are activating its emergency operations center on Monday. Before the storm was on anyone's radar, Patch spoke with Town Manager Brandon Robertson about last year's storm that left parts of Avon without power for up to 12 da

As Yogi Berra once said, "It's déjà vu all over again."

When Patch sat down with Avon Town Manager Brandon Robertson Oct. 19 to interview him for a retrospective piece about the anniversary of the October snowstorm, no one in Connecticut knew Hurricane Sandy was coming let alone slated to hit our state so eerily close to Oct. 29.

In response to our question about whether Avon would be prepared should a sequel to the October storm happen – and now I'm wishing I said "knock on wood" a little more emphatically – Robertson said, "We would be prepared. We've got a very flexible crew here and we're adaptable, we're flexible and we're nimble and I think we can meet pretty much any challenge that comes up."

As the town activates its emergency operations center, schools close and Avon High School opens as an emergency shelter, it's hard not to think about the irony of the hurricane's timing.

But what's different now?

Avon's landscape, for one.

"We've thinned out a few trees," Robertson said Oct. 19.

He said he knew that it was going to be bigger than the average storm when he heard the trees cracking as the snow fell Oct. 29, 2011.

"Certainly, Sunday at first light, there was no question about it. All you had to do was look outside," he said. "It didn't take long to realize it was going to be a very impactful event."

The birch trees that he used to see at the entrance to the Town Hall parking lot had to be removed because they were damaged in the October snowstorm last year.

In addition to the downed trees and branches lost as a result of the storm, Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) spent the summer in Avon trimming branches close to the power lines. The power company does this annually.

There were regular meetings in Simsbury, where CL&P is headquartered, in the aftermath of the October snowstorm last year. Farmington Valley government officials had the opportunity to "compare notes" and to be briefed on the power company's "battle plan." Town Council representatives, town managers and first selectmen, police, emergency service personnel, state representatives and power company employees attended. State Sen. Kevin Witkos (R-8), U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), U.S. Rep Chris Murphy (D-5) and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman (D) also came to some meetings.

There were times during daily statewide conference calls and press conferences when Robertson and Farmington Valley town officials expressed frustration with CL&P last year. Town officials were asking for linemen to repair power lines and they weren't getting them soon enough. Avon Public Works employees were ready to clear trees from roads, but could not touch debris near downed power lines for safety purposes until CL&P had them fixed.

"A major frustration was getting realistic time frames," Robertson said. "The issue was we cand deal with bad news, just tell us what we need to plan for.... It put the towns in an unfortunate position."

But the dire requests for help in the Farmington Valley drew the National Guard to help clear debris later in the storm clean-up.

"I think everyone from the Valley was very clear about the level of frustration that things weren't happening quick enough," Robertson said.

Overall, though, Robertson said the town's "interaction with CL&P was quite good." He was thankful to company customer service representatives who began manning phones in the town manager's office about four days after the storm. They were there to answer incoming questions from residents about power restoration. There was a "steady stream" of calls to Town Hall, he said.

Since Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm, Robertson said that CL&P has "done a lot of outreach to the town."

CL&P is approaching Hurricane Sandy more proactively. CL&P Senior Vice President Bill Quinlan said at a press conference that the power company is expecting to have .

"Their (CL&P's) primary function is making the power lines safe before the restoration process begins so we can open roads," Avon Emergency Management Director James DiPace said on Friday. "CL&P's planning is supposed to be totally different. If in fact we get hit, it will be a test."

Like during the October snowstorm, a CL&P liasion has been assigned to the town to keep town officials informed and will be stationed in the emergency operations center for the duration of the storm. CL&P was part of the conversation of updating the town's emergency operations plan in a summer emergency response drill.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded the town with 75 percent in emergency reimbursement money for both Irene and the October snowstorm, which will count toward the 2011-12 fiscal year.

With the October snowstorm a year behind us, the town of Avon learned a lot, Roberson said. He said he can't believe it's been a year since then and he continues to be amazed by how the community came together despite the unanticipated impact of the event.

"One thing I'll never forget. I would say, personally being without electricity for nine or 10 days and turning the clock back to the 1800s was a unique experience that I'm not excited about reliving any time soon," he said Oct. 19.

Hurricane Sandy is a different kind of storm than last October. Only time will tell what impact the new, powerful storm will have on Avon.

But one thing's for certain – the October snowstorm has not been forgotten.

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