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Irene eases up, but damage still widespread

NEW YORK

Stripped of hurricane rank, Tropical Storm Irene spent the last of its fury Sunday, leaving treacherous flooding and millions without power — but an unfazed New York and relief that it was nothing like the nightmare authorities feared.

Slowly, the East Coast surveyed the damage — up to $7 billion by one private estimate. There also were 21 deaths in eight states, most of them when trees crashed through roofs or onto cars.

The center of Irene crossed into Canada late Sunday, but for many the danger had not passed. Chris Fogarty, director of the Canadian Hurricane Centre, warned of flooding and wind damage in eastern Canada and said the heaviest rainfall was expected in Quebec, where about 250,000 homes were without power.

In northern New England and upstate New York rivers and creeks turned into raging torrents tumbling with limbs and parts of buildings. Flooding was widespread in Vermont, and hundreds of people were told to leave the capital, Montpelier, which could get flooded twice: once by Irene and once by a utility trying to save an overwhelmed dam.

"This is not over," President Barack Obama had warned earlier from the Rose Garden.

After days of dire warnings, mandatory evacuations and shuttered transit systems, state and federal officials resisted any notion that they had exaggerated either the threat from the hurricane or the need for precautions.

"People say we've dodged a bullet, but we've lost lives," said W. Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "I don't think you can say that's dodging a bullet." He added: "You don't get a second chance."

Meanwhile, the nation's most populous region looked to a new week and the arduous process of getting back to normal. New York lifted its evacuation order for 370,000 people and said subway service, shut down for the first time by a natural disaster, will be partially restored today, though it warned riders to expect long lines and long waits. Philadelphia restarted its trains and buses.

"All in all," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "we are in pretty good shape."

The main New York power company, Consolidated Edison, didn't have to go through with a plan to cut electricity to lower Manhattan to protect its equipment. Engineers had worried that salty seawater would damage the wiring.

And two pillars of the neighborhood came through the storm just fine: the New York Stock Exchange said it would be open for business today, and the Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center site didn't lose a single tree.

The center of Irene passed over Central Park at midmorning with the storm packing 65 mph winds. By evening, with its giant figure-six shape brushing over New England and drifting east, it was down to 50 mph.

"Just another storm," said Scott Beller, who was at a Lowe's hardware store in the Long Island hamlet of Centereach, looking for a generator because his power was out.

Not as bad as forecast

The Northeast was spared the urban nightmare some had worried about — crippled infrastructure, stranded people and windows blown out of skyscrapers. Early assessments showed "it wasn't as bad as we thought it would be," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said.

Later in the day, the extent of the damage became clearer. Floodwaters were rising across New Jersey, closing side streets and major highways including the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 295. In Essex County, authorities used a five-ton truck to ferry people away from their homes as the Passaic River neared its expected crest Sunday night.

Twenty homes on Long Island Sound in Connecticut were destroyed by churning surf. The torrential rain chased hundreds of people in upstate New York from their homes and washed out 137 miles of the state's main highway.

In Massachusetts, the National Guard had to help people evacuate. The ski resort town of Wil­mington, Vt., was flooded, but nobody could get to it because both state roads leading there were underwater.

"This is the worst I've ever seen in Vermont," said Mike O'Neil, the state emergency management director.

Rivers roared in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In the Hudson Valley town of New Paltz, N.Y., so many people were gathering to watch a rising river that authorities banned alcohol sales and ordered people inside. And in Rhode Island, which has a geography thick with bays, inlets and shoreline, authorities were worried about coastal flooding.

Up and down the coast, the images were the same: siding peeled from houses; boats torn from moorings and thrown ashore; massive trees ripped from the ground; and cars submerged beneath floodwaters.

The secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, encouraged drivers in affected areas to stay off the roads so that crews could work on removing debris and repairing power lines.

Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia pointed out that in past hurricanes, many fatalities occurred after the rains had cleared because of poor driving conditions, contact with downed power lines and overexertion during the cleanup.

"While the storm has passed," McDonnell said at a news conference, "the dangers have not."

The 21 deaths

The 21 deaths in the eight states broke down this way: Connecticut, one; Florida, two; Maryland, one; New Jersey, one; New York, two; North Carolina, six; Pennsylvania, four; Pennsylvania, four.

The storm system knocked out power for 4½ million people along the Eastern Seaboard. Power companies were picking through uprooted trees and reconnecting lines in the South and had restored electricity to hundreds of thousands of people by Sunday afternoon.

Under its first hurricane warning in a quarter-century, New York took extraordinary precautions.

There were sandbags on Wall Street, tarps over subway grates and plywood on storefront windows. The subway stopped rolling. Broadway and baseball were canceled.

With the worst of the storm over, hurricane experts assessed the preparations and concluded that, far from hyping the danger, authorities had done the right thing by being cautious.

Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center, called it a textbook case. "I think absolutely lives were saved."

Mayfield credited government officials — but also the meteorologists. Days before the storm ever touched American land, forecast models showed it passing more or less across New York City.

Good preparations

"I think the forecast itself was very good, and I think the preparations were also good," said Keith Seitter, director of the American Meteorological Society. "If this exact same storm had happened without the preparations that everyone had taken, there would have been pretty severe consequences."

In the South, authorities still were not sure how much damage had been done. North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said some parts of her state were unreachable.

The Virginia governor had initially warned that Irene could be a "catastrophic" monster with record storm surges of up to 8 feet. But the mayor of Virginia Beach, Va., suggested on Twitter that the damage was not as bad as feared, as did the mayor of Ocean City, Md.

Irene was the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States since 2008 and came almost six years to the day after Katrina ravaged New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.

As the East Coast cleans up, it can't afford to get too comfortable. Off the coast of Africa is a batch of clouds that computer models say will probably threaten the East Coast 10 days from now, Mayfield said.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

Irene eases up, but damage still widespread 08/29/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 29, 2011 2:19am]

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