Last night, about 60 people slept on cots in the gymnasium of East Lyme Middle School, the regional American Red Cross Shelter serving East Lyme, Old Lyme, Lyme, Montville, Waterford, and New London.
It wasn't the terrible weather that prompted them to pack up the kids, the pets, and three-days' worth of clothes, toiletries, bedding, and family valuables. Hurricane Sandy was still just a threat last night, spitting slightly and gusting occasionally. It wasn't even that all of them hailed from areas under mandatory evacuation orders.
No, for the many people who spent the night at East Lyme Middle School—and they were all ages, all races, with kids, and with dogs—it was the memory of what life was like during tropical storm Irene that drove them to seek shelter sooner rather than later.
"We went through Irene and we have a lot of trees that came down. That's our biggest fear. We figured we were just safer here. There's water, food, showers. It was a difficult choice to leave our home but once you decide your primary focus is your family's safety, it was a much easier decision to make," said Sharon Day of Giants Neck in Niantic, who was at the shelter with her husband and 7-year-old son.
"There's only one way out of Giants Neck," Day said, adding that during Irene that road was blocked by fallen trees and downed power lines. "During Irene, we were stuck at our house," she said. "I'd rather be able to go in than feel like I couldn't get out."
"I wasn't told to evacuate," said a woman who lives in housing for people over 55 in Uncasville. "I've never been in a shelter before. I got a call from my niece in Florida. She got frightened for me and told me to go. I was getting kind of worried we wouldn't have power anyway."
Who's At The Shelter and Why They Came
A number of people from Old Lyme went to the shelter because they were ordered to evacuate. Wang Chuck, his wife Tenzin and their one-year-old baby, Ngawang, live about a mile from the beach in Old Lyme. They came with all their valuables and an air mattress.
Wang Chuck said his biggest fear was that he wouldn't be able to get back to his family this morning after working the night shift at Apple Rehabilitation in Old Saybrook. Both he and his wife work there and both are considered essential workers. But at least he doesn't have to worry about the safety of his wife and child at home while he's on the night shift.
Gloria and Frank Noto were supposed to be on their way from Old Lyme to their winter home in Florida today but because of Hurricane Sandy, their flight from Bradley International Airport was canceled. Their house at Hawks Nest Beach in Old Lyme is in the evacuation zone. As it was already winterized and locked up for the season, they spent last night at the shelter with their chihuahua, Holly.
Neil O'Connor, his wife Antoinette, and their son Patrick are also from Hawks Nest Beach in Old Lyme. They're year-round residents and they're worried about what might happen to their home if the storm surge results in the kind of flooding forecasters are predicting.
Neil O'Connor did his best to make sure everything was buttoned up before they left. The yard furniture is put away, the gas grill is chained to the deck, all the appliances are turned off and the electricity is off. "We'll probably lose everything we have in the fridge," said Antoinette, knowing full well that they could lose much more than that.
"Whatever happens now, it's an act of God," said Neil. "And that's why you have flood insurance."
The Red Cross Shelter is ready, come what may. The shelter has the capacity to handle 2,200 people if need be and Waterford-East Lyme Animal Control is there to look after the pets they bring with them too because, as Animal Control Officer Robert Yuchniuk noted last night, for many people who should seek shelter not being able to bring their pets is, "a deal breaker."