The Southern states that first felt the lash of Hurricane Irene exhaled and heavily populated New Jersey and New York City cautiously began a return to routine, but the pain was just beginning for parts of upstate New York and New England, where rivers leaped their banks and raged through towns, trapping an unknown number of people in floods.
In Vermont, where soil was already saturated from a wet spring and soaking rains, rescue teams stymied by torrential floodwaters were unable to reach stranded residents in towns along the Winooski River, including the capital, Montpelier.
“We didn’t know where the storm was going to hit,” Mark Bosma of Vermont Emergency Management said Sunday evening from the state operations center in Waterbury, where floodwater lapped outside. “Evacuations beforehand just weren’t possible.”
Across eight states, at least 22 people died in storm-related accidents over the weekend; car crashes and toppling trees were mostly to blame. In Harrisburg, Pa., a man at a party who decided to sleep outside with a group of friends died when a tree fell on his tent, police said. A 20-year old woman swept away in the Deerfield River in southern Vermont was presumed dead.
Up to 4 million customers, fairly evenly scattered along the storm’s path from North Carolina to Maine, still lacked power Sunday. It will take days — possibly more than a week — to restore all the power, authorities said.
Thousands of travelers remained stranded after an estimated 11,238 flights were canceled, including nearly 1,000 that were scheduled for Monday, according to FlightAware.com. The three major airports near New York City — John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark — were not expected to reopen until 6 a.m. Monday.
The economic toll from Irene is expected to be hefty, with insured and uninsured damages totaling from $5 billion to $7 billion, according to Jose Miranda of Eqecat Inc., a catastrophic risk management firm in Oakland.
At the White House, President Obama offered his “thoughts and prayers” to victims, vowed the federal government’s emergency response would continue and cautioned that Irene, while downgraded to a tropical storm, remained dangerous.
“I want people to understand that this is not over,” he said Sunday, flanked by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Many Americans are still at serious risk of power outages and flooding, which could get worse in the coming days as rivers swell past their banks.”
Earlier in the day, National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read warned that New Hampshire and Vermont would probably experience “record flooding.” Hours later, his prediction seemed apt.
“I’ve never seen flooding like this, especially this widespread,” said Capt. Ray Keefe of the Vermont State Police, who described the flooding as “epic.”
“We’ve lost a lot of homes; hundreds of roads, bridges have been washed away,” Keefe said. “This has been a real tough one.”
And late Sunday, it looked as if it could get tougher. Green Mountain Power warned it might need to release extra water from Marshfield Reservoir to save the dam, which would flood Montpelier again, the Associated Press reported.
In the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York, National Guard troops and rescue crews rushed to reach stranded citizens after floodwaters washed away bridges and made roads impassable, said Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden.
In Prattsville, a town of about 300 in the Catskill Mountains, floodwaters stranded scores of people, including about 20 marooned on the second floor of a motel. Troops used elevated Humvees to plow through the floodwaters, while rescue crews used helicopters to reach the mountain communities, Groden said.
In New York City, where emptied streets imparted a surreal touch over the weekend, the devastating flooding feared by some did not materialize. The curved edge of Lower Manhattan was soaked, but most damage in the city was confined to uprooted trees and wind-torn awnings.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg lifted evacuation orders Sunday afternoon. Authorities reopened closed tunnels and bridges and were taking steps to restart the city’s subway system Monday morning.
Limited bus service began Sunday afternoon, and the heavily traveled PATH train system linking Manhattan and New Jersey was scheduled to resume service Monday afternoon. But, Bloomberg said Sunday, “It’s safe to say it’s going to be a tough commute tomorrow.”
Despite a sense that the emergency was over in New Jersey and metropolitan New York, authorities warned people to stay inside their homes until conditions were fully assessed in the hardest-hit areas.
“I am particularly concerned about downed power lines,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during a morning interview on the “Today” show. “There is no, no safe place to be outside right now in New Jersey, between downed power lines, flooding. You need to stay in your home.”
In Connecticut, two firefighters were injured by electrical shocks. Both were briefly hospitalized.
Christie said authorities were keeping an eye on dams in the state after reservoirs were filled by heavy rainfall — up to 8 inches in some areas.
On Long Island, Jennifer Ferri and her husband had ignored orders to evacuate their waterside home in Babylon. Early Sunday, a surging tide poured into their first-floor fitness room, destroying a refrigerator, TV set and most of their daughter’s toys.
“It came in fast,” Ferri said. “There wasn’t time to pump it.”
When the rain stopped at midday, the couple took a break from the cleanup and went for a walk in the flooded streets to see how their neighbors fared.
“This was bad flooding, but I was expecting a lot worse,” Ferri said.
Similar sentiments were heard in North Carolina, the first state hit by Hurricane Irene. Despite widespread flooding, downed trees, power outages and road closures caused by 85-mph winds and intense rain, many were relieved the damage wasn’t worse.
“We did all right,” said Hal Denny, mayor of Southern Shores, a beach town on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where the worst damage was to trees, dozens of which had been uprooted.
Becky Breiholz, the town clerk for Manteo, N.C., was surveying damage on Roanoke Island for state and federal officials Sunday morning.
“I have to admit, I was getting a little scared early on and thinking, you know, maybe I should leave,” said Breiholz, who stuck it out at home. “We were blessed.”
Reston reported from Mystic, Ceasar from Los Angeles and Zucchino from Manteo.
Times staff writers Nathaniel Popper and Tina Susman in New York, Richard Fausset in Morehead, N.C., Robin Abcarian and Richard Verrier in Los Angeles, Kim Geiger in Washington and Tom Hamburger in Annapolis, Md., contributed to this report.