By Emily Greenhalgh
PBN Web Editor
PROVIDENCE – Schools, businesses and government offices around Rhode Island have shut down as the state prepares for Hurricane Sandy, which is forecast to hit the Ocean State hardest between mid-day Monday and Tuesday.
On Sunday, Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee signed a Declaration of Disaster Emergency in advance of the hurricane’s landfall and the state has issued mandatory evacuations for low-lying parts of Bristol, Charlestown, Middletown, Narragansett, South Kingstown, Tiverton and Westerly. Some residents in Newport and Portsmouth were also urged to move to higher ground.
As of noon on Monday, Sandy, a Category 1 storm, had sustained winds of 90 mph and was centered roughly 205 miles southeast of Atlantic City, N.J.. According to the National Weather Service, the storm’s hurricane-force winds extended 175 miles from its center.
Rhode Island schools were taking no chances with the storm. Public schools in Coventry, East Providence, Jamestown, North Kingstown, Providence and Westerly canceled classes on Monday and all colleges and universities in the state also canceled classes, except for Bryant University, which held classes until noon.
All non-essential state offices and agencies were closed on Monday, with only essential state employees – such as those with the R.I. Emergency Management Agency – reporting to work. U.S. District Court for Rhode Island also closed its doors Monday, according to a notice posted on its website.
The R.I. Public Transportation Agency suspended service in Newport and South County beginning at 10 a.m., with statewide services suspended at noon.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is canceling all subway, bus and commuter rail service at 2 p.m. due to the expected high winds. Amtrak service was also canceled.
As of noon on Monday, service from T.F. Green Airport was still open, though travelers should check the status of specific flights as most flights were canceled. All Rhode Island ports were closed to vessel traffic.
Major bridges were open as of Monday morning, but the state police will continually monitor wind speeds and decide whether or not to close bridges on a temporary basis.
Roughly 6,800 Rhode Islanders were already without power at some point Monday. As of 11 a.m., that number had dwindled to 425, but National Grid spokesman David Graves told Providence Business News that he expects the number to jump around throughout the day as winds intensify.
Graves added that National Grid crews, which are being dispatched as outages are reported, cannot use bucket trucks in winds over 40 to 45 mph. “Emergency 911 calls will be answered,” said Graves, “but we have to be concerned about the safety of our employees.”
Winds aren’t the only concern from oncoming Sandy. The Army Corps of Engineers closed Providence’s Fox Point Hurricane Barrier at 7 a.m. on Monday in preparation for the storm surge, which will coincide with a higher-than-average high tide at 8:23 p.m. The South Street flood gates are also being closed.
Narragansett Bay could see a storm surge between 3 and 6 feet, with rain accumulation between 3 and 6 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
Providence’s Emergency Operations Center was activated early this morning and a representative from National Grid is embedded at the center to help fix power outages.
“We’ve been through this once before, and I think it’s helped us prepare for this,” said Providence Mayor Angel Taveras on a conference call. “This is a big storm in terms of size, and it’s a strong storm in terms of power.”
Taveras, who was comparing Sandy to last year’s Hurricane Irene, urged Providence residents to try and create their emergency kits with items already in their homes, rather than venturing outside onto the roads to get batteries, water, canned food and flashlights. The mayor also asked Providence residents to check in on any elderly neighbors.
The R.I. Department of Health is urging people who depend on life-sustaining medical equipment – such as respirators – to go to a shelter before heavier winds pick up in the afternoon. They should bring at least a three-day supply of medications. For a full list of shelters, visit www.ri.gov/press/view/17752.
President Barack Obama has declared emergencies in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, promising that the federal government will “respond big and respond fast” after the storm hits.