East struggles to recover from Irene

August 31, 2011 2:54:05 PM PDT
Only one flooded Vermont town remained cut off from the outside world Wednesday, but National Guard helicopters were still dropping food and water on storm-ravaged parts of the state as the Eastern seaboard struggled to recover from hurricane-turned-tropical-storm Irene.

About 2 million people remained without power in water-logged homes and businesses from North Carolina through New England, where the storm has been blamed for at least 45 deaths in 13 states. Raging floodwaters continued to ravage parts of northern New Jersey on Wednesday morning, even after the state's rain-swollen rivers crested and slowly receded.

"It's like an island now," said Falguni Purohip, who owns the Killington Pico Motor Inn on Route 4 in Mendon, Vt., where her family and one guest are trapped. "We can't go anywhere."

The town of Rutland is 15 miles away but impossible to reach because of extensive road damage. Purohip said the family has power and plenty of food and water to keep them going, but no way of leaving. Nearly 11 inches of rain triggered the deluges, which knocked houses off their foundations, destroyed covered bridges and caused earthquake-style damage to infrastructure all over Vermont.

In New Jersey, the raging Passaic River crested Tuesday night, causing extensive flooding and forcing a new round of evacuations and rescues in Paterson, the state's third-largest city.

"Been in Paterson all my life, I'm 62 years old, and I've never seen anything like this," said resident Gloria Moses as she gathered with others at the edge of what used to be a network of streets, now covered by a lake.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, after touring Wayne, through which the Passaic also flows, said Tuesday night he saw "just extraordinary despair."

In Connecticut, the Connecticut River at Hartford crested Tuesday evening at 24.8 feet, the highest level since 1987, according to Nicole Belk, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, in Taunton, Mass. But she said levees helped minimize flooding in riverside communities.

She said the river could still rise slightly farther south, in Middletown, where some streets and neighborhoods were already experiencing minor flooding.

Vermont's largest electric utility says a convoy of line crews is headed for the town of Rochester - where a power substation was completely destroyed by flooding - to begin work to restore power. Officials say at least five Vermont schools are closed until further notice and about 120 have delayed opening for the school year because of roads or schools ravaged by flooding.

Flood control dams and basins that New England states installed after 1955 floods helped prevent a catastrophe in the lower Connecticut River basin, said Denise Ruzicka, director of inland water resources for Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

In Vermont, officials focused on providing basic necessities to residents who in many cases still have no power, no telephone service and no way to get in or out of their towns. On Tuesday night, 11 towns - Cavendish, Granville, Hancock, Killington, Mendon, Marlboro, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Stockbridge, Strafford and Wardsboro - were cut off from the outside.

But by Wednesday morning, all but one of the communities - Wardsboro- had been reached by ground crews, and emergency management officials were hoping to reach it shortly.

Vermont National Guard choppers made three drops in Killington, Mendon, Pittsfield and Rochester Tuesday while 10 other towns received truck deliveries of food, blankets, tarps and water. Eight Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters from the Illinois National Guard are expected to arrive Wednesday to bolster the number of flights.

Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate told CBS's "The Early Show" a drawdown in assistance funds will have no negative impact on the agency's efforts to help stricken Eastern Seaboard states. The agency has less than $800 million left in its disaster coffers.

In Woodstock, Vt., Michael Ricci spent the day clearing debris from his backyard along the Ottauquechee River. What had been a meticulously mowed, sloping grass lawn and gorgeous flower beds was now a muddy expanse littered with debris, including wooden boards, propane tanks and a deer hunting target.

"The things we saw go down the river were just incredible," Ricci said. "Sheds, picnic tables, propane tanks, furnaces, refrigerators. We weren't prepared for that. We had prepared for wind and what we ended up with was more water than I could possibly, possibly have imagined." He said the water in his yard was almost up to the house, or about 15 to 20 feet above normal.

Volunteers in Windham, N.Y., helped 26-year-old Antonia Schreiber salvage the floors of the 200-year-old Victorian cottage she had transformed into a luxury day spa.

The ski town, high in the Catskill Mountains, was left under several feet of brick-red water Sunday night after a stony creek, the Batavia Kill, grew to a raging river fueled by a foot of rain.

"Friends, loved ones, people I don't even know showed up with trucks, bulldozers and hugs," she said as men and women scraped and mopped around her. "The magnitude of generosity and good will is just overwhelming."

While East Coast residents measured the cost of the storm in waterlogged cars and ruined furniture, official predictions were more dire.

In North Carolina, where Irene blew ashore along the Outer Banks on Saturday before heading for New York and New England, Gov. Beverly Perdue said the hurricane destroyed more than 1,100 homes and caused at least $70 million in damage.

During a visit to the Catskill Mountains Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he expects damage in the state to total $1 billion.

Early Wednesday, President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in New York, freeing up federal recovery funds for people in eight counties. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs. Irene destroyed 500 to 600 homes and thousands of acres of farmland in upstate New York.

Total losses from the storm along the U.S. Atlantic Coast - including damage and expenses incurred by governments - are likely to be about $7 billion, according to Jan Vermeiren, CEO of Silver Spring, Md.-based risk consultant Kinetic Analysis Corp., which uses computer models to estimate storm losses.


Hill reported from Killington, Vt. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Woodstock, Vt., Lisa Rathke, Wilson Ring and Dave Gram in Montpelier, David Porter and Samantha Henry in Lodi, N.J., Stephen Dockery in Fairfield, Conn., David Klepper and Laura Crimaldi in Providence, R.I., and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y.

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