Irene brings heavy rain to New England

Chris Swimm retrieves planks from a friend's deck washed away by waves from Tropical Storm Irene that surged onto Wilbur's Point in Fairhaven, Mass., Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011. Tropical Storm Irene's gusty winds and rain caused thousands of power outages and flooding Sunday as Massachusetts emergency officials warned that the downgraded storm still posed a significant threat.
AP Photo/The Standard Times, Peter Pereira

Updated 5:00 p.m. ET

MILFORD, Conn. - Irene was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm on Sunday morning, but forecasters said it still was packing a powerful enough punch to continue delivering heavy rain to northern New England into Sunday night.

At 5 p.m. the National Hurricane Center announced that the tropical storm was 65 miles south of Rutland, Vt., traveling north-northeast at a a speed of 26 mph. Maximum sustained winds were 50 mph.

Tropical Storm Irene sent water splashing into the streets of shoreline communities Sunday as it surged across Connecticut, toppling trees and cutting power to 700,000 customers. One person was killed in a fire sparked by downed wires.

The water surged over a sea wall in East Haven, flooding one coastal road with waist-deep water and damaging houses. East Haven Mayor April Capone said authorities were trying to confirm a report that some beach houses had fallen into the water, but she was not aware of any injuries or fatalities.

"We know we've lost many decks, porches and things like that," Capone said.

The storm was downgraded from a hurricane before its center reached the state and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he was already shifting attention to the recovery effort, but officials were keeping a wary eye on rising waters. Malloy said dams would be opened to ease the flooding risk on the swollen Housatonic River.

Seawater was also flooding streets in other shoreline towns and cities including Bridgeport, Westbrook and Fairfield.

"The water is flowing up the streets and making them impassable," said Mike Tetreau, first selectman in the town of Fairfield, one of 32 municipalities that reported evacuations ahead of the storm.

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Streets were blocked across southern parts of the state by fallen trees and power lines. In Middletown, storm-driven winds on the Connecticut River pushed white caps against boats that had been anchored away from shore to avoid a battering on the dock.

Some people in East Haven who did not follow warnings to evacuate had to be rescued as the storm surge arrived, Capone said. In Milford, the National Guard was responding to three requests to save people stranded by the water, according to Col. John Whitford, a spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard. Whitford said 900 troops were posted at armories across the state and ready to assist with the recovery.

Capone said she was frustrated that some were coming out in the storm for sightseeing, saying they were getting in the way of emergency workers.

One person died overnight and another was severely injured in a fire at a house in Prospect, said Lt. J. Paul Vance, a state police spokesman. Malloy said the blaze was apparently caused by wires knocked down by the storm. Two firefighters were also received treatment for electric shocks.

In Bridgeport, two patients dependent on respirators were carried down five flights of stairs after the facility lost power and the generator failed. They were taken to hospitals, city spokeswoman Elaine Ficarra.

Malloy said that 700,000 customers - about half the state - were without power. Connecticut Light & Power spokesman Dave Radanovich said the utility had the most outages ever for a single event, shattering a record set in 1985 when Hurricane Gloria knocked out power to 477,000 customers.

Officials predicted widespread, prolonged outages, possibly lasting several days. Spokesmen for Connecticut Light & Power Co. and The United Illuminating Co., the two major electricity utilities in the state, said hundreds of regular crews and hundreds of out-of-state workers, including some from as far away as Alabama, Michigan and Quebec will be ready to begin restoring outages as soon as the weather permits.

Disabled residents of a nursing home in Milford who were sitting in the dark after a generator failed said they were worried about a lengthy outage.

"Once the refrigerator gets warm, my insulin goes bad. I could go into diabetic shock. It's kind of scary because we don't know how long it's going be out for," said Pat Dillon, 52, who was partially paralyzed from a stroke.

Another resident, Michael Lisej, 62, sometimes uses oxygen and was wondering how he would make it back to his third-floor apartment with no elevators.

"It's going to be rough on me to use the stairs," Lisej said. "I got bad knees and I have a heart condition. I just have to take my time."