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N.J. Shore Town Destroyed by Sandy Confronts an Uncertain Future

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The house that Tracy Johnson and Paul Merker share in Sandy-ravaged Highlands, N.J., isn’t so much a home as a campsite: insides gutted to the studs, kitchen sink propped up by two-by-fours, a bathroom with no walls.

They endured winter with a propane heater. They cook meals with a portable stove and hot plate. They take baths warmed by boiled water.

“There are days when I say, ‘I can’t take it anymore, I gotta get out,’” Johnson said.

But when she goes for a walk, she is overwhelmed by the sight: home after home that has been abandoned or ripped apart, months from habitability.

“You see people working on them, but they’re not nearly as far as they’d like to be. It’s depressing,” Johnson said. “It’s everywhere, and that’s the point. You try to get away from your own home, but even when you do that, you’re still not seeing anything different.”

It’s hard to relax in Highlands, a small but proud middle-class town at the northern tip of the Jersey Shore. The borough of 5,000, where the Shrewsbury River meets Sandy Hook Bay, is undergoing a profound transformation that won’t end with the physical rebuilding. The carnage wrought by Sandy—up to eight feet of water inundated downtown—has prompted what might best be described as an existential crisis, with residents, business owners and public officials confronting daunting questions about the kind of place Highlands will be for those who remain, and how it will survive.

Highlands, a modest fishing and commuter community known mostly for its seafood restaurants, doesn’t get as much attention as other communities along coastal New York and New Jersey that were battered by Sandy. It doesn’t boast a boardwalk or amusement park or golden sand. It is, however, emblematic of the region’s post-Sandy struggle. The borough is in a fight for its life, and the solution just might be a colossal engineering project that has been tried just once before, more than a century ago.

Before they can tackle such big thoughts, however, the people of Highlands are trying figure out a more pressing question: how to get safely back in their homes before the next big storm arrives.

A significant proportion of property owners have thrown themselves into the task, raiding their savings to start repairs while negotiating a dizzying tangle of red tape required by banks, insurance companies and the government.

At the same time, an unsettling number—exactly how many is not clear—are trying to sell their homes, or have simply walked away.

In the middle are homeowners and business owners who, for various reasons, are waiting. Some have received insurance payouts but can’t afford to supplement rebuilding costs with their own money. Others have decided to see what additional aid they can get from the state or Federal Emergency Management Agency. The local government has requested about $140 million in grants to divide among property owners, a process that could take several months or longer.

The lucky ones have friends or family to stay with, or can afford to rent a second home. The unlucky ones feel so overwhelmed that they simply cannot decide what to do.

“Sandy has really struck a blow and shaken people to their core,” said Steve Szulecki, a scientist who heads the local environmental commission and whose home, on a hill, was spared.

Szulecki described two phases of destruction in Highlands. First, he said, was the physical, which displaced people and damaged their homes. “The second wave,” he said, “is the bureaucracy and economics that people are starting to confront.”

Even the local government is in a jam.

Three municipal buildings, including Borough Hall, did not have flood insurance and were evacuated after the storm, Borough Administrator Tim Hill said. The government’s deductible on each building is $500,000, leaving the town, which operates on an $8 million annual budget and is already facing a painful drop in tax revenues, unable to foot the bill. One of the three buildings has been put into partial use; most government offices, including the police department, are still working out of trailers.

In the end, the town may have to permanently abandon the buildings and rebuild on higher ground.

Public officials, meanwhile, are scrambling to help residents navigate the rebuilding process. They’re taking steps to adopt new construction and zoning rules that will make it easier for people to rebuild.

“We’re hoping folks want to remain in town and we’re trying to enable them to do that,” Hill said.

Ultimately, Highlands’ future hinges on a single concept: lifting.

Most of Highlands, including the entire downtown, sits in a major flood zone shaped more or less like a bathtub; parts of it regularly flood at high tide. The only sure way to prevent Sandy-like destruction is to prop everything on stilts or pilings. Depending how badly a building was damaged by Sandy, and its current height in relation to the sea, a home might eventually have to be lifted as much as 14 feet.

About 800 of the downtown’s 1,200 homes and businesses were deemed damaged enough to require that they be lifted. That number could fall as property owners appeal those assessments.

Lifting is an expensive undertaking. Many property owners have found that their $30,000 insurance allotment won’t cover it. The town's $140 million grant proposal would go entirely toward helping residents meet those costs. Some have gone ahead and started the lifting process anyway.

Those who elect not to lift are taking a gamble: they may find it difficult to find insurance, or see their property values drop.

Then there are the quality of life issues. In a town of stilts and small yards, how do the elderly or disabled or parents of young children get in and out of their homes without hurting themselves?

“There are many folks who are in a situation where they’re not sure if they want to go through all of this,” Hill said. “But in the long term…the common sense approach for long-term marketability is going to come into play. If you don’t raise your house, its value isn’t going to be as high.”

No matter how high people raise their homes, the streets of Highlands will still flood. And property owners and developers will question whether it’s worth the investment.

The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed building a levee system, but the downtown often floods from the inside, through storm drains, and takes additional runoff from nearby hills.

Szulecki, the head of the environmental commission, believes there is one way to ensure the long-term viability of Highlands: raise the town itself.

His model is Galveston, Texas, the Gulf Coast city that was virtually destroyed by a storm in 1900 and then, over the next decade, was backfilled and raised by as much as 16 feet.

If Galveston succeeded with century-old engineering techniques, Szulecki figured, then a modern, smaller Highlands could pull it off.

He originally suggested it to town leaders before Sandy, but since then the plan has been taken a lot more seriously. Many local officials, including Mayor Frank Nolan, now endorse it. Nolan has estimated that the project—which would be performed in phases, requiring temporary displacement for many homeowners and the demolition of dozens of buildings that could not withstand being lifted—would cost about $25 million, a combination of insurance payouts, public funding and private money.

But the plan has fueled old fears among longtime residents that downtown Highlands, dominated by modest bungalows and vinyl-clapboard homes, will be turned into cookie-cutter rental units and tourist-trap restaurants.

“This town always had a plan: they wanted to buy houses, knock them down and build condos,” Paul Merker said.

Merker is Tracey Johnson’s fiancé, an unemployed construction worker and Highlands native who says he suffers from insomnia and vomiting from the stress of living in their gutted home. At the stoop is the kayak he paddled around town during Sandy, when he watched what seemed like a tsunami swallow the nearby peninsula of Sandy Hook. His glassy blue eyes and pallid complexion show the toll.

“I think this town is done,” Merker said. “Anyone who has left this town ain’t coming back. I think it will be a new wave of people who are going to have to make it what it’s going to be.”

Merker is among many people born and raised in Highlands who see developers repopulating the town with tenants who don’t have much connection to its history, or stake in its future.

But others think developers could turn out to be the town’s saviors, because there are few options for the growing number of dormant properties—the leveled trailer park, the shuttered restaurants, the abandoned homes.

Those who want to push forward with new development point out that there’s no going back to the pre-Sandy Highlands. What old-timers love about the town—the ability to live modestly near the water and resist interference from the forces of commercialization—seems less viable now. Along the shore there are ramshackle buildings that bring to mind the shotgun shacks of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. It’s hard to imagine those structures remaining.

And yet, with all the doubts and suspicion and anxiety, there is a fighting spirit that pervades the place. It’s visible on any casual drive around town: constructions crews laying drywall, the sounds of forklifts moving fishing boats out of dry dock, clam shack owners furiously scrubbing floors and tables in hopes of opening in time for summer.

“This is terrible. It’s horrible. It sucks. But guess what? It’s not the end of the world,” said Leo Cervantes, a owner of Chilangos, a popular Mexican restaurant on Bay Avenue that was ruined by six feet of water. A native of an impoverished neighborhood of Mexico City, Cervantes calls himself a survivor, and has called in all sorts of favors and loans to get his kitchen running by Memorial Day.

“This is a new opportunity,” he said. “A new start. To me, this is the only way: you get up and you do it again.”

Douglas Lentz, co-owner of the Inlet Café, a seafood joint, was more blunt. “I got no choice in the matter but to rebuild,” he said as he pushed a wheelbarrow full of building materials into his restaurant.

Tracey Johnson is more optimistic than Merker, her fiancé. She sees hope in that she's managed to hire a small team of local contractors who are, in piecemeal fashion, slowly putting her house back together.

“I look at it this way: I’m not going anywhere,” she said one warm, breezy Friday in early May. “I’ve lived in this town my whole life. I’m not leaving it to be a resort town.”

A few blocks away, on Shrewsbury Avenue, Regina Yahara-Splain stepped out onto the deck of her ravaged two-story home, across the street from a marina. To her right she could see the place where she nearly drowned while fleeing Sandy, clinging to a fence as the storm surge heaved to her chest. As she recalled the experience, tears streaked mascara across her cheeks.

A disabled widow, Yahara-Splain has borrowed from her retirement accounts to raise enough money to rebuild and raise her house. After months of phone calls, reams of paperwork and thousands of dollars in fees, work was finally underway. Talking about that revived her mood, and she began to daydream about returning home for good.

She closed her eyes and let the sun warm her face. She listened to the gulls, a flag snapping in the wind. She took a gulp of salty air. She imagined pulling an air mattress out there and sleeping under the stars, like she used to.

For the first time in a long while, she could see it happening: something very good coming out of something very bad.

“I wouldn’t live in another town," she said. "The people here have come together so strong. People say, ‘How could you stay?’ I tell them, ‘How could I not?”

She smiled. “What greater place could you ever imagine?”



Photo Credit: Getty Images

14 Displaced in Hartford Fire

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Fourteen people, including three children, have been displaced by a residential fire on Blue Hills Avenue in Hartford.

The fire broke out around 3 a.m. at a three-story house two doors down from a fire house.

Multiple crews responded and it took about an hour to get the flames under control, but the house is inhabitable.

“There is quite a bit of water damage to the third floor. The ceilings on the third floor, we have to take them down to access the attic area, so the whole building at this time is unlivable,” Deputy Fire Chief Dave Serpliss, of the Hartford Fire Department, said.
 



Photo Credit: NBCConnecticut.com

Jersey Shore Towns to Vacationers: We’re Still Here

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Mark O’Donnell usually books his family’s summer vacation in January. For the last dozen years, that meant reserving an oceanfront house for a week in Long Beach Island, a quiet cluster of beach towns on the New Jersey shore. But this January, he didn’t book the trip. He had Sandy on his mind.

The storm ripped through LBI in late October, but for months he watched the scenes of destruction replay on TV—the whitecaps lapping storefronts on the boulevard, the houses shifted and battered. So he put off vacation planning, too wary to book a trip to a place that might be nursing gaping wounds.

Each summer, families, couples, and carloads of friends migrate to one of the 40 shore towns that dot the coast of New Jersey for brief escapes to the ocean or bay. But this year, many people who have devotedly returned to the Jersey Shore each summer are grappling with the same question that conflicted the O'Donnells: Will it be the same as it used to be?

With Memorial Day around the corner, it's a question that has taken on more urgency for prospective visitors finalizing their summer plans, and for those on the shore who depend on the seasonal influx of vacationers.

On Long Beach Island, one of the shore's marquee summer destinations, the problem is playing out in the realm of summer real estate, a key industry for much of the Shore. Realtors and homeowners on the island say they’re seeing more rental vacancies than usual for this time of year and worry that the damage from Sandy got more attention than the cleanup.

“People think we’re Seaside Heights and we’re not,” says Joe Mancini, the mayor of Long Beach, the island’s largest township. Like others on LBI, he believes that images of lingering damage in Seaside and Mantoloking, LBI’s neighbors to the north, have sowed the flawed notion that the entire Jersey shore is still damaged.

“This was a horrific storm,” Mancini adds, “but we were aggressive in cleaning it up.”

Certainly, much of the island appears to be in good shape. Fresh signs and flags adorn shops and restaurants along the island’s main drag, letting passersby know they’ve re-opened. A hilltop of debris that was parked outside the Acme supermaket, a symbol of the island's devestation, has been hauled away. The island’s main attractions, the pale sandy beaches, have been restored and will be open for the summer.

But some property owners are having trouble relaying that message to seasonal renters, still clinging to the images of flooding and mayhem. 

Todd Cohan, a 46-year-old entrepreneur who has rented out properties on LBI since 1997, cannot remember a slower summer. Neither of his two luxury oceanfront homes suffered any flooding or damage and still, with just two weeks until Memorial Day, Cohan had vacancies for 40 percent of the season.

To attract prospective guests, he’s posted current images of his properties to real estate websites Homeaway.com and Beachrentals.net. He's added a “pay by credit card” option to his listings, which is something he has never done before, and he estimates that he has emailed about 2,000 people—anyone who has ever inquired about either of his 5-bedroom properties—to see if they’d like to book a few nights.

So far, he’s gotten few positive responses. “They write back to say, ‘due to the devastation and destruction from Sandy’—What destruction? I want them to come down here and show me what they think the destruction is,” Cohan says.

Since the rentals are not his only source of income, he doesn’t expect the vacancies to cripple him, though he says he’ll certainly feel the impact. Each home goes for about $9,000 a week—money he puts toward his mortgages.

Weekly rates for rentals on LBI range in price from the high triple digits for inland cottages to more than $12,000 for exclusive oceanfront properties. While realtors say that the dip in demand has been seen across all price levels, luxury homes have taken it particularly hard.

"Normally, they go first," said Matt Kulinski from the G. Anderson real estate agency. "The way the market works, in January and February, the high-end properties go." But this year, he says, "it's been the other way around."

Vacancies are a concern for both homeowners and local businesses, which depend on a surge of summer income to last them through the slower season. LBI, an island with less than 12,000 residents, has more than 17,000 rental homes, which fill up each summer with visitors. In 2011, summertime tourists generated more than $1.2 billion in spending at restaurants, retail shops and other businesses in southern Ocean County, according to a report commissioned by the LBI Chamber of Commerce.

John Franzoni a realtor at Oceanside Realty who has been in the real estate business for the last 30 years, acknowledges that the storm was worse than any that has hit the island in generations, but doesn’t attribute the dip in rental demand to any real storm damage.

“It’s really because of the perception out there,” he said, noting that just 5 percent of his properties had to be delisted after the storm. “We’re in really good shape, we’re ready to go.”

Still, his rentals are down 20 percent from this time last year—a figure repeated at many agencies along the island—and he says the internet is partially to blame.

“Twenty years ago, on a Saturday or Sunday anytime after the Super Bowl, you’d have people lined up outside to look at rental properties,” he said, referring to the early February weekends when the wave of summer rental bookings begin. “Now, we do 80 or 90 percent of the rentals right over the internet. So that’s been a big change. If people were coming down, they would see the condition, but they only know what they’ve heard. And they’ve gotten a lot of bad reports.”

The island surely wasn’t spared. More than 3,300 applications for residential federal disaster assistance were submitted from Long Beach township alone—a township with just over 8,000 homes. And while the clean-up was aggressive, LBI still bears distinct Sandy scars. Oceanfront homes at the southern end of the island jut out of sand dunes on skinny trunks of exposed pilings. Dumpsters and construction signs still dot the island, particularly in the community of Holgate, which buzzes with the sounds of construction.

But for the most part, the sort of damage that might matter most to tourists has largely been repaired: The beaches have been cleaned and restored and Mayor Mancini says that 95 percent of LBI’s stores and restaurants will be open for business by Memorial Day.

To combat whatever negative impressions would-be visitors may be harboring, a group of LBI devotees organized a commercial aimed at New Jersey residents who may not have seen the island post-recovery. It began airing in early May on about a dozen networks, including Bravo, CNBC, Fox News and Nat Geo, after local businesses and the mayor’s office raised $50,000 for airtime.



While there’s no way to predict the impact the commercial and other publicity may have on wary visitors, rental prices point to optimism. Real estate agents say that homeowners have not lowered their prices just yet. (Cohan hasn't either.)

Kulinski from the G. Anderson Agency predicts that warmer weather will bring more business to the rental market. "When it's cold and windy and not really beach-like weather, [beach vacations] are put on the back burner." He also thinks that prospective renters are waiting to see how much progress the island makes and will eventually commit.

O'Donnell did. After four months of vacillating, he took a daytrip to LBI to assess the storm damage for himself.  He found his usual summer home in Holgate badly beaten, as he had expected. But he found plenty of other homes to choose from and settled on a 4-bedroom in Beach Haven, which he booked for a week in July.

“I was pleasantly pleased. The rest of the island seemed to be in decent shape," he said, adding that he was happy to contribute to the island's summer economy. "They’re working like demons to get it ready.”

Jersey Shore's LBI Fights "Perception Problem"

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A drive around Long Beach Island, N.J., a popular summer destination for families across the state, reveals few scars from Sandy. Many damaged homes and businesses have been repaired. Streets, once covered with sand and sludge have been cleared. But the rental industry--a key industry on the Jersey Shore--is still feeling the storm's effects.

Rebuilding Highlands

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The carnage wrought by Sandy—up to eight feet of water inundated downtown—has prompted what might best be described as an existential crisis, with residents, business owners and public officials confronting daunting questions about the kind of place Highlands will be in the future.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Water Main Break in Middletown

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A large water main break on Newfield Street in Middletown will affect traffic through this evening.

Newfield Street is closed between Tuttle Road and Mile Lane because the heavy water flowing beneath the street eroded the roadway, causing the asphalt to buckle.

City of Middletown officials are asking the public to avoid Newfield Street to limit traffic delays. All traffic on Newfield Street in the affected area will be routed to other streets.

Middletown Water & Sewer, Public Works, and Police are at the scene and will remain there until repairs are completed.

Around 20 customers on Newfield Street, from Mile Lane north to 1075 Newfield Street, are affected by the break and shut down of the water main.

The Police Department’s Traffic Unit is coordinating with the Board of Education to re-route buses for students attending Lawrence Elementary School, Keigwin Middle School, and Middletown High School.
 
The break occurred on a 12-inch water main around 10 a.m.

Water Department crews have isolated the break and are working to repair it, restore water and repair the road. 
 

Teen Charged in Hamden Home Invasions, Burglaries

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Hamden police have arrested a 17-year-old New Haven boy suspected of committing home invasions and burglaries in Hamden and they are working with New Haven police to determine if he could be connected to home invasions in the city.

Police have not released the suspect's name because of his age, but said he is suspected of entering a Blake Road home while the residents were sleeping on May 17.

When the homeowner woke up, his car and electronic equipment were missing, according to police.

On Monday, Hamden Police responded to an Augur Street house for a report of a burglar entering the house through an unlocked window while the residents were asleep and stealing school-related items. Police said the teen is suspected of that break-in as well.

During the early morning hours on Tuesday, Hamden police found a lead in the case. The car that was stolen in the Blake Road burglary was parked on a New Haven city street.

Officers conducted surveillance and saw someone get into the car on May 21 and proceed on Huntington Street.

Police tried to stop the driver, a 17-year-old boy, at Winchester Avenue and Division Street, but he did not stop and crashed on Sheffield Avenue near Highland Street, police said. 

From there, he led police on a foot pursuit through several backyards.

Police found him hiding in bushes on Winchester Avenue and arrested him, police said.

When police investigated, they determined that the teen was responsible for committing the overnight burglaries on Blake Road and Augur Street, police said.

The teen was charged with burglary and larceny, as well as other charges.

He isy being detained at the Whalley Avenue Detention Center and is scheduled to appear in juvenile court on May 31.

The Hamden Police Department Detective Division is continuing the investigation.

Cromwell Man Charged With Voyeurism

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Cromwell police have charged a local man with voyeurism after a complaint was filed about an intimate video that had been posted online.

Information about the case is limited, but police said they executed a search and seizure warrant for Edward Taupier’s home on Douglas Drive in Cromwell for computer files, images and video files and will be submitting the seized evidence to the State Forensic Laboratory for analysis and recovery.

Taupier was arrested at 8:45 a.m. and charged with voyeurism and disseminating voyeuristic material.

Taupier was released on a $25,000 non-surety bond and is due in court on June 11.

Cromwell police are continuing to investigate.



Photo Credit: NBCConnecticut.com

Severe Thunderstorm Watch Issued

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A severe thunderstorm watch has been issued for all of northern Connecticut until 10 p.m. 

There is no threat of severe weather until at least 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., according to NBC Connecticut Meteorologist NBC Connecticut. 

Some of the thunderstorms might be severe, especially to the north and west of Interstate 95, according to the National Weather Service. Damaging winds and large hail are the main threats.

This is the second day in a row that weather alerts have been issued in the state.

On Tuesday night and this morning, thunder and lightning swept through parts of the state. The storms brought hail and took down trees and power lines.

Watch the interactive radar here

If you take photos of severe weather, send them to photos@nbcconnecticut.com.

Honoring Fallen Law Enforcement Killed in Line of Duty

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The Connecticut law enforcement community came together on Wednesday to honor the 135 local police officers, state troopers and federal agents who died in the line of duty while serving the residents of the state.

Many of the spouses and family members of the law enforcement personnel who died in the line of duty attended the 25th Annual Connecticut Law Enforcement Memorial Ceremony, including Caroline Quilty.

Her brother, Trooper Joseph Stoba, was killed on Aug. 6, 1962 while responding to a domestic dispute in Portland. 

“Every year I've been here.  It's been 51 years this year, so it’s just like yesterday that it happened,” Quilty said.

The ceremony also recognized two members of law enforcement who were shot this year, but survived. 

Officer Jonathan Ley, of the Norwich Police Department, was shot while responding to a domestic violence call on January 7. 

Detective Scott Wisner, of the Connecticut State Police, was shot on April 10 by armed robbers in Westbrook. 

The first name read today was New Haven officer Thomas Cummins, who died in 1855. He was the first officer to be killed on a domestic disturbance call, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The last name read was Trooper First Class Kenneth Hall, who died in 2010. Hall, a 22-year veteran of the state police, was killed in a crash on Interstate 91 in Enfield on Sept. 2, 2010.
An Enfield man who caused the crash has been sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman was the keynote speaker at the event. The focus of the ceremony was “Never Forget.”
 



Photo Credit: NBCConnecticut.com

Chicago School Board Votes to Close 50 Schools

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The Chicago School Board voted Wednesday to shutter 49 elementary schools and one high school in the nation's third-largest school system despite demonstrations and community outrage over the closings. 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools officials said the move is necessary to improve education and get the school district on better financial footing.

"The only consideration for us today is to do exactly what is right for the children,'' schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said before the board's vote.

But Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis called the closings a "cowboy mentality" and said education "has been hijacked." She said Wednesday was a "day of mourning" for many schoolchildren who will be forced to cross gang boundaries in order to get to their new classrooms.

"Mayoral control is out of control," Lewis told reporters. She pledged a voter registration drive in an attempt to register 200,000 new voters before the 2015 municipal elections -- when Emanuel will be up for re-election -- and to raise funds to support candidates for mayor, city council and statewide office.

"We know that we may not win every seat we intend to target but with research, polling, money and people power we can win some of them,'' she said.

Emanuel noted there may be political consequences for the closures but paid them no mind, saying that taking no action would mean far greater consequences for students.

"I know this is incredibly difficult, but I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future," he said in a written statement after the board's action. "More hard work lies ahead, but I am confident that together with teachers and principals, engaged parents and community support, our children will succeed."

Four schools escaped the closure list that was released in March. Chicago Board of Education vice president Jesse Ruiz confirmed to NBC Chicago hours before the vote that Byrd-Bennett had  withdrawn her recommendation to close George Manierre Elementary School, Marcus Garvey Elementary School, Mahalia Jackson Elementary School and Leif Ericson Elementary Scholastic Academy.

The Chicago Teachers Union has said a single school closure is one too many and 50 or more would be catastrophic for the district, but teachers admitted the late move was a step in the right direction.

"It's a great start. We have 50 more to go," Chicago Teachers Union member Kristine Mayle said earlier Wednesday. 

"There's an old expression," CTU Vice President Jesse Shakey said. "Don't put a knife in my back six inches, pull it out a couple and say you're doing a favor."

Other union members left for Springfield Wednesday morning to press lawmakers to pass legislation that would put a moratorium on school closings, and in Chicago, there was optimism that more schools could be saved.

"We saw at the last board meeting that there actually was some dissension for the first time," Mayle said. "We'd never seen that before in all these years we've been doing this. Hopefully when they actually got out to these schools they saw what was actually happening in these neighborhoods."

Chicago is among several major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit to use mass school closures to reduce costs and offset declining enrollment. Detroit has closed more than 130 schools since 2005, including more than 40 in 2010 alone.

The school closings are the second major issue pitting Emanuel against the Chicago Teachers Union. The group's 26,000 members went on strike early in the school year, partly over the school district's demand for longer school days, idling students for a week.

More than 300 of the district's 681 schools were initially eyed for closure. That number was dwindled to 129 schools in February when Byrd-Bennett announced more specific criteria as to which schools might be affected to deal with what she called a "utilization crisis."

She's maintained the district has about 100,000 more seats than students at a time the district is facing a $1 billion deficit. Each closed school, she's said, would ultimately save the district between $500,000 and $800,000, saving the district $560 million over 10 years in capital costs and an additional $43 million per year in operating costs.

CTU officials have openly questioned those figures.

Byrd-Bennett: Closures Mean Additional Resources for Remaining Schools

 

Byrd-Bennett: Safety Trumps All Other Decisions

 

Byrd-Bennett on Potential School Closure Moratorium

 

Parent: School Closures Especially Difficult for Special Needs Kids

 
The Associated Press' Sara Burnett contributed to this report.



Photo Credit: AP

False Weather Report Leads to Tornado Warning

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Shortly before 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Stephen Dirienzo, a meteorologist at the Albany, New York National Weather Service, was about to issue a severe thunderstorm warning for Columbia County in New York when the office received a phone call from someone who said a tornado was on the ground in the village of Copake.

The report came from a trained weather spotter.

The tornado warning was issued for Columbia and Dutchess Counties in New York, as well as adjacent sections of Berkshire County in Massachusetts and Litchfield County in Connecticut.

The warning was subsequently reissued farther south in Connecticut as the storm crossed the border and turned right.

"From what we understand, no one can find any damage consistent with a tornado," Dirienzo said.

The "confirmed" tornado turned out to be a false report.

Based on pictures and video from Copake, what the spotter was actually looking at was a large, rotating wall cloud and a large appendage off the cloud known as a beaver tail or scud.

The latter can be mistaken for a tornado if a storm spotter doesn't know exactly what they're looking for.

"People can get freaked out, so to speak, and get excited," Dirienzo said. "They called us right away, which is a good thing to do, but probably got overzealous as far as what was actually happening."

The storm was quite powerful, however, dropping hail to the size of tennis balls in New York and the size of golf balls in Connecticut.

In Salisbury the hail accumulated to several inches in some towns.

While the storm spotter in this case was likely mistaken, some of the reports that come into the National Weather Service are hoaxes.

Bogus pictures and observations are an unfortunate reality for the government agency charged with issuing warnings to protect life and property.

"We've had a number of different hoaxes. Everything from dam failures to tornadoes that were photoshopped in from the Great Plains," Dirienzo said.

Most storm reports from the public, law enforcement, and trained spotters are very useful.

While only a small number of reports are either hoaxes or misunderstandings, like the one in Copake on Tuesday, they can lead to false alarm warnings.

Woman Delivers Her Own Baby at Home

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A Southington family welcomed their second child sooner than they expected.

Erica Bovino always wanted to give birth at home, but what happened on May 6, wasn't exactly what she had in mind.

"I went into labor at 1 a.m. I figured I had plenty of time because with my first son Jack, it was 30 hours long." Erica said.

However, there was no time. She called her husband Paul, who was at work.  As soon as she got off the phone, she knew the baby was coming.

"I got off the phone with him and my water broke. And I thought, 'OK, this is really happening and I don't have time to get to Yale-New Haven Hospital," Erica said.

All of this was happening while Erica's 3-year-old son Jack was asleep in his bedroom. Erica went upstairs to the bathroom.

"I squatted and, not even I would say, five minutes later she was born. I looked up and had her up like this and boom her eyes opened," Erica said.

Baby Stella was born wide-eyed and healthy.

Minutes later, Erica's husband walked in the back door and did not yet know his daughter was already born.

"To come home and find Erica holding a baby, it's amazing," Paul Sulzicki said.

Paul called 911 and paramedics took the family to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where Erica and Stella spent a few days. The proud husband and dad said their story was the talk among the hospital staff.

"Everyone at the hospital called her a super woman, a trooper. Just absolutely amazing what she did by herself," said Paul.

Erica always wanted to give birth at home with the help of a midwife. But obviously plans changed. It's a story she can't wait to tell her daughter.

"It was  the ultimate test for me. She came when she wanted to come and she wasn't holding back," Erica said.









 

MTA Workers Looking to Sue Over Train Collision

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MTA workers who were injured in last week's train collision in Bridgeport are now looking to sue.

Five conductors and two engineers have hired attorney George Cahill to investigate what caused the crash and whether the railroad was negligent.

"He was thrown to the floor, his window was blown out, he was banged up pretty good, he broke his wrists," Cahill said describing the frightening aftermath of Friday's collision.

When the eastbound train collided with the westbound one, the engineer thought they hit head-on, he said.

"The engineer on the westbound train thought for sure he was going to die and it's a miracle he wasn't hurt more severely than he was," Cahill said.

These injuries are now the focus of a lawsuit Cahill might bring against Metro-North on behalf of five conductors and two engineers who were all onboard.

"They're all in shock. They're all very traumatized," Cahill added.

Cahill is investigating what caused this derailment and whether Metro-North didn't do its job, namely when it came to track repairs and inspections or with the wheels on the state's new fleet of M-8 rail cars.

"We're not sure exactly whether or not that repair has anything to do with the derailment, but it's in the same area," adding that "when wheel sets are too tight, it will cause the wheel of a train to actually creep up the running rail."

"I felt like I was riding in an old jalopy. Bouncing around and the M8s run better. They're smoother, cleaner," Marc Pelletier, of Middletown, said.

Riders like Marc said the derailment might have thrown off their commute for a few days, but they don't feel any danger riding now.

"We'll find out exactly what happened. I'm sure, but at this point, I feel safe," Pelletier said.

"I figure it's safer than actually driving, if you look at the number of accidents on the road every day,"  Jack Wolfe, of New Haven, said.

Officials from the MTA said they cannot comment on a pending or future lawsuit.

Cahill said they'll discuss the claim with the railroad and, if they can't resolve it, they'll go to federal court.

 



Photo Credit: AP

Lawmakers Take New Steps to Make Pools Safer

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Connecticut lawmakers passed a new bill to increase safety at school pools. The news legislation comes in the wake of the deaths of Marcum Asiahmah in East Hartford and Malvrick Donkor of Manchester.

Daniel Ofori-Minteh was one of the parents that demanded state lawmakers to make some changes after his son, Malvrick Donkor drowned in a high school gym class last year.

“It’s good that they’re taking these steps but it’s too late,” admitted Daniel Ofori-Minteh.

He wished lawmakers would have looked at pool safety before his son Malvrick drowned during gym class at Manchester High School in November.

“That would have been perfect, a lifeguard would have been able to save him, they might have known something was happening,” Ofori-Minteh explained.
 
He told NBC Connecticut no lifeguard watched over the class when that happened, and said there was only one teacher there for 15 students. “

My son spent 17 minutes in the pool and nobody knew he was there,” Ofori-Mintah said. 

Last January, a similar incident happened at East Hartford High School, when 15- year- old Marcum Asiamah drowned.

In response to his son's and Asiamah's drowning, Daniel Ofori-Mintah pushed lawmakers to step in.

“I have not stopped crying, my wife has not stopped crying, the children have not stopped crying,” he said.
 
The new pool safety bill will require all public schools to put a second pair of eyes on the water during swim class.  The person would have to be Red Cross or Lifeguard certified and this might not cost districts anything.  Students could actually volunteer for this as community service.

“If this would have been done a year ago my son would have survived by now,” Ofori-Mintah added.
 
He said these changes could prevent another tragedy, and save parents from the devastation he has dealt with. “My child is supposed to bury me, so why should I bury my child?” he questioned.
 
The Senate could vote on the bill as soon as next week.  If it passes, it would be up to the Governor to sign it into law.



Photo Credit: Getty Images

Rape Victim's Friends Oppose Plea Deal

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The man accused of raping a jogger in West Hartford is expected to be sentenced today after being offered a plea deal that has outraged the victim and her friends.

In October 2010, a jogger was attacked in the front yard of a home on Fern Street and Eddie Monroig-Rosario has been charged with first-degree sexual assault, unlawful restraint and second-degree strangulation.

He is expected to receive 18 years in prison, according to Stephanie Blozy, the owner of Fleet Feet Sports in West Hartford and a friend of the victim.

In December, Monroig-Rosario was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a string of burglaries and Stephanie Blozy, the owner of Fleet Feet Sports in West Hartford and a friend of the victim, said the sentences are expected to be served at the same time.

"In the end, that just means, two to three years, that he'll be serving for rape and what strikes me is the lady that was raped, her scars are really deep," Blozy said. "Something as heinous as a rape is, just to get a slap on the wrist, it doesn't seem fair." 

The victim’s friends will ask the judge to reject the plea deal in favor of a stricter sentence.

 



Photo Credit: West Hartford Police

Seven-Mile Backup in New Haven

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A crash on Interstate 95 North in New Haven is causing a seven-mile backup this morning.

The crash happened in the area of exit 46 earlier this morning.
 



Photo Credit: Connecticut DOT Traffic Cameras

Miami Steals Game 1 in OT, 103-102

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The Miami Heat opened the Eastern Conference Finals with a dramatic overtime win, securing victory at the buzzer in overtime on a LeBron James layup.

With 2.2 seconds to go, James took an inbounds pass from Shane Battier and made a beeline for the rim to hit the final shot, making it a 103-102 win over the Indiana Pacers.

James notched his ninth career playoff triple double with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists.

PHOTOS: Heat Top Pacers in Game 1

"Two teams fought hard," James said. "We were able to make one more play."

Dwyane Wade scored 19 points, Chrish Bosh had 17 points, and Chris "Birdman" Andersen scored 16 points off the bench.

Seconds after Ray Allen missed one of two free throws that could have iced the game, Paul George forced overtime when he hit a 3-pointer from 32 feet with under a second to go in the fourth quarter.

He also appeared to give the Pacers a win in overtime when he drew a questionable foul call on Dwayne Wade while throwing up a desperation 3-pointer. He hit all three free throws to give the Pacers a one-point lead, but the reigning MVP made sure it would not last.

George scored 27 points, David West scored 26, and Roy Hibbert had 19 with 9 rebounds for Indiana.

Complete Miami Heat Coverage

Quizzically, Pacers coach Frank Vogel benched Hibbert on defense in the final two Heat possessions, likely fearing he would not be able to defend an outside shot from Chris Bosh. In both possessions, James drove to the hoop for go-ahead buckets.

"I would say we would probably have him in next time," Vogel said.

Early on it looked like the Pacers had lulled Miami into the kind of defensive slugfest that would normally favor Indiana. They led 42-37 at the half, forcing 13 Heat turnovers limiting James' and Bosh's minutes due to foul trouble.

Miami picked it up in the second half with a healthy dose of Andersen. Playing in a big lineup alongside Chris Bosh for stretches, he got multiple easy baskets at the rim by sneaking up on Hibbert on the weak side.

"Welcome to the Eastern Conference finals," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Back and forth the whole way."

The Heat were out-rebounded by Indiana 43-38, but Miami had 16 offensive rebounds, including one in the final minute of overtime when Bosh made a putback (only his second rebound of the game) and got fouled, tying the game on the ensuing free throw.

"We're excited about the win," James said. "But we have to get better going into Game 2.

 The series continues with Game 2 on Friday night in Miami.



Photo Credit: Getty Images

14 Displaced in Norwich Fire

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Fourteen people were displaced by a fire in a multi-family residence at 490 Norwich Ave. in the Taftville section of Norwich last night.

Fire broke out around 11 p.m. on Wednesday and blew out two windows on the third floor.

One firefighter suffered a minor injury and has since been released from the hospital.

The residents were able to get out safely and were not injured.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
 



Photo Credit: NBCConnecticut.com

Woman Charged With Violating Protective Order

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West Haven Police have arrested a local woman who is accused of violating a protective order by going into her ex-boyfriend’s residence, then damaging a cell while she was in police custody.

West Haven Police responded to a residence on First Avenue for a domestic dispute around 3:45 a.m. on Thursday and found Tina Proctor, 32, also of First Avenue in West Haven.

They said she illegally entering her ex-boyfriends home, violating a protective order.
Police took her into custody and she began damaging the cell she was contained in, police said. 

Proctor was charged with violating a protective order, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief. She is due in court in Milford today.
 



Photo Credit: West Haven Police
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