Irene’s Death Toll Rises as Cleanup Begins

The number crunching and recovery efforts have begun as people try to resume their normal routines after Hurricane Irene’s weekend Eastern Seaboard wallop left at least 31 dead in eight states, caused massive flooding, and paralyzed air and ground transportation.

After Irene weakened to a post-tropical storm and headed over Eastern Canada on Monday morning, in New York City, commuters are back to using the restarted subway network that normally handles about five million riders daily. Flooding in New York wasn’t extensive because Irene’s eye passed over Coney Island and Central Park.

Some service, however, remains suspended after the unprecedented shutdown of the largest transit system in the U.S. Six of the Long Island Rail Road’s 11 branches are running. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority warns there may be some cancellations on some routes. As well, service remains suspended on the Metro-North Railroad – serving regions north of New York City, from Westchester to southern Connecticut – because of severe flooding and the after-effects of mudslides, and most New Jersey Transit trains also won’t be running Monday. Many cab drivers in New York were struggling to get moving in the morning as their vehicles were deep in water.

The New York Stock Exchange said it would be open for business on Monday, and the Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center site didn’t lose a single tree.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg stuck by his decision last week to order 370,000 residents to evacuate their homes in low-lying areas, saying it was impossible to know just how powerful the storm would be. “We were just unwilling to risk the life of a single New Yorker,” he said. (CBC)

Following the cancellation of about 9,000 flights, airports in New York and around the Northeast were reopening to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of passengers. But parts of the Northeast are still grappling with widespread power outages and people whose homes have been destroyed have been left stranded.

While the financial damage estimates are preliminary at best – one consulting firm pegged total losses at about $7 billion US, with insured losses between $2 billion and $3 billion – the emotional toll after the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental U.S. since 2008 is incalculable.

“It was much less bite than bark,” said Matt Carletti, specialty insurance analyst at JMP Securities. “Rounding up, it’s a $10 billion event, not 20 or 30 or 40.” (CNN)

“Certainly, the storm was, in terms of damage and losses, less than expected,” said Jose Miranda, director of client advocacy for Eqecat. “The fact that the storm hit the U.S. coast three separate times served as the number one factor why it weakened as it moved up the East Coast and mitigated losses… Economic impact is still to be seen,” added Miranda. “There are towns that are underwater now near Philadelphia and up in New York and Vermont.” (CNN)

“I want to underscore the impacts of this storm will be felt for some time and the recovery effort may last for weeks and months,” President Barack Obama warned during an address Sunday night. (CBC)

The number of storm-related deaths is now at least 31: One each in Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont. Two each in Connecticut and Florida. Four each in New Jersey and Virginia. Five each in New York state and Pennsylvania. Six in North Carolina. The ages of the fatalities ranged from an 11-year-old boy in Newport, Va., who was killed when a large tree crashed through his apartment, to an 89-year-old woman in Prospect, Conn., who was killed early Sunday when a falling tree limb pulled power lines onto her house and started a fire.

Hundreds of people remain out of their homes in Vermont, after they were told to leave before Irene swamped the landlocked state. Video posted on Facebook showed a 141-year-old covered bridge in Rockingham swept away by the rolling, muddy Williams River. In another video, an empty car somersaulted down a river in Bennington.

“It’s pretty fierce. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Michelle Guevin, who spoke from a Brattleboro restaurant after leaving her home in nearby Newfane. She said the fast-moving Rock River was washing out the road to her house. (CBC)

Green Mountain Power warned that Montpelier, the capital, could be flooded twice: once in the initial storm and again if the utility decides it must release water to save the earthen Marshfield Dam, about 30 kilometres up the Winooski River to the northeast. “We don’t want to do it. But if the dam were to be compromised, it would be a far greater effect,” utility spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said. Residents of 350 households were asked to leave as a precaution. (CBC)

“We never see this sort of thing in Vermont,” said CNN iReporter Jesse Stone of White River Junction, where the covered bridge was flooded. “For the people who are saying that Irene was disappointing, maybe, because they didn’t get the sort of wind and damage they expected, I just want to remind them that, in places like Vermont, we really got it pretty hard.” (CNN)

Officials are working to repair hundreds of damaged roads, and power companies picked through uprooted trees and reconnected lines.
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 closed 220 kilometres of the state’s main highway.

As many as 200 residents were isolated and without power Monday on Ocracoke Island, near where Irene had first made landfall as a hurricane on Saturday. Supply transport to Ocracoke was hampered as ocean waves dislodged large chunks of a key roadway. Dunes at Ocracoke’s northern end “have apparently been spread across the road, so no one yet knows how badly the pavement is damaged,” said Clayton Gaskill, manager of Ocracoke’s tiny FM radio station WOVV. (CNN)

Flooding was ongoing, particularly in New England, said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “A lot of activities are moving into recovery phases, but we are still very concerned about the flooding,” he told reporters in a conference call. (CNN) As of early afternoon, about 5 million customers were without power, Fugate said, citing figures from the Department of Energy. That was down from about 6 million, he said.

Asked how FEMA has changed its approach to handling disasters six years after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to much of the Gulf Coast, Fugate said the agency now has more authority to act prior to receiving a request from a governor. That translates into “not having to wait” until the impact of the storm is clear. “We have to act quickly and be prepared to support that.” (CNN)

“Hurricane Irene, from our vantage point, was a very well-behaved, New England breed of hurricane,” said David Vallee, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in charge of the Northeastern forecast center in Taunton, Massachusetts. “Lots of rain west of the track.” (CNN)

Authorities in and around Easton, Pa., kept a close eye on the rising Delaware River. The National Weather Service forecast the river to crest there at 10 metres, well above normal flood stage.

In the South, authorities were not sure how much damage had been done but expressed relief that it wasn’t worse. “Thank God it weakened a little bit,” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who toured a hard-hit Richmond neighbourhood where large, old-growth trees uprooted and crushed houses and automobiles. (CBC)

In Norfolk, most of the water had receded by Sunday. There was isolated flooding and downed trees, but nowhere near the damage officials predicted. “We can’t believe a hurricane came through here,” city spokeswoman Lori Crouch said. (CBC)

In North Carolina, where six people were killed, the infrastructure losses included the only road to the seven villages on Hatteras Island. “Overall, the destruction is not as severe as I was worried it might be, but there is still lots and lots of destruction, and people’s lives are turned upside down,” Gov. Beverly Perdue said in Kill Devil Hills. (CBC)

In Washington, President Barack Obama vowed, “We will make sure folks have all the support they need.” He added that “it will take time” to recover. (CNN)

Irene was a major hurricane at one point, with winds higher than 175 km/h as it headed toward the U.S. By the time it hit New York, it was a tropical storm with 105 km/h winds. It lost the characteristics of a tropical storm and had slowed to 80 km/h by the time it reached Canada.

The remnants of the hurricane are creating strong winds and dumping heavy rain on parts of Québec and the Maritime provinces, leaving thousands without power on Monday afternoon.

In Québec, one person was reported missing northeast of Montreal. The Sûreté du Québec is searching the Yamaska River for a man who was in a car that was swept away by rushing water when a culvert collapsed in Yamaska. Two other men were injured in the collapse, which left a 30-metre long hole.

At 8 a.m. ET Monday, the storm was centered about 55 kilometres south-southeast of Baie Comeau, Que., and was tracking northeast at about 45 km/h.

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