Irene heads north as death toll rises, floodwaters rise

08/28/2011 10:37 AM

12/15/2011 6:46 AM

Already a killer storm, Irene sloshed through the New York metropolitan area Sunday, briefly flooding parts of the city and severing power to a million people but not provoking the doomsday urban disaster that had been feared.

Diminished to a tropical storm and racing to its own overnight demise in New England and Canada, Irene killed at least 18 people in six states. More than 4.5 million customers lost power along the East Coast and well inland. Initial property damage estimates ranged up to $7 billion.

And it was not over yet.

“Many Americans are still at serious risk of power outages and flooding, which could get worse in coming days as rivers swell past their banks,” President Barack Obama said Sunday evening. “There are a lot of communities that are still being affected.”

Irene dumped immense amounts of rain on a region already saturated by summer downpours. Many communities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, upstate New York, Connecticut, Vermont and elsewhere endured life-threatening floods and toppling trees.

State and local authorities warned of more to come and they begged residents not to become complacent. It takes some time for rain runoff to accumulate, they said, tree roots were weakening in the over-moist soil and the danger will not end for days.

“Stay inside,” Gov. Chris Christie told New Jersey residents. “The real issue that we’re going to have to deal with now is flooding. We’re going to experience major flooding. Some rivers haven’t crested yet, and it’s still raining.”

Christie noted at least 300 road closures and obstructions across his state, though he said the New Jersey Turnpike and bridges were clear, so tree-clearing equipment was on its way. Deep floods swamped portions of Hackensack, Westwood, Ridgewood, Hillsdale and other communities in New Jersey.

In New York City, ocean water invaded some beachside communities, and both the East River and the Hudson River overtopped their banks, but the resulting floods were not major and most receded quickly. At the same time, numerous waterborne rescues were necessary in Staten Island, Westchester County and other parts of the area.

“It was pretty scary at four in the morning when I was woken up by the wind, but other than that, things don’t seem so bad,” said Nora Flaherty of Brooklyn. “I’m glad people took this seriously. Better safe than sorry.”

By midday, with the rain coming to an end, she and many other New Yorkers ventured outside to inspect their surroundings and walk their dogs.

In the Clinton Hill area near Brooklyn Heights, little damage was evident, though the basement of some brownstone townhouses flooded. Residents reported two to three inches of water in their apartments, saying there would have been more if they hadn't created sandbag dams at the entrances.

Young children in raincoats and boots stomped through puddles, laughing as they were blown about in the wind, and life began returning to normal in other ways. The New York Stock Exchange planned to open for business as usual Monday and, consequently, the Men’s Wearhouse store near Wall Street swiftly re-opened for business Sunday.

“The city and the state did a phenomenal job of getting everyone ready and were very forceful in terms of recommending evacuations, especially from the low-lying areas – I’m very happy about that,” said Scott Schoneman, a New York resident who works in the financial industry. “And the storm itself, it didn’t seem to be as bad as they were predicting.”

Along Irene’s path, the death toll was expected to increase, but authorities said it could have been much worse. The evacuation of at least 2.3 million coastal residents – and other precautions – "dramatically reduced risk to life," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, downplayed suggestions that the government had overreacted. Weather forecasts, by their very nature, rarely prove 100 percent accurate and the prudent step is to prepare for the worst, he and other experts said.

Whenever lives are lost, Fugate said, it cannot be said that the nation "dodged a bullet." He noted that, though only 25 percent of evacuations prove necessary, it’s that 25 percent that saves lives.

He also urged people to donate to the charities that help shoulder the burden of feeding and housing evacuees during storms, including the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. "They were prepared from North Carolina to Maine for what might happen," Fugate said.

Joseph Bruno, New York City's emergency management commissioner, agreed that the preparations were necessary, proper and effective.

"The people in our city listened to our mayor," Bruno told CNN. "He said ‘evacuate’, and they did. To me, this is a very important part of this – people complied with the mayor. They're very knowledgeable now...they know Mother Nature can be very cruel."

In Philadelphia, residents awakened to a quiet calm after a night of high wind and driving rain. Mayor Michael Nutter lifted a state of emergency, the city's first in 25 years. The region's transit system resumed limited service.

Nearly 600,000 customers in the Philadelphia region, including parts of southern New Jersey, lost power. Service was restored by Sunday evening to about half of those customers, but utility officials said it could take up to two weeks before everyone came back on line.

"This is one of the worst storm events that has hit Philadelphia in the last 50 years," Nutter said.

Throughout the region, post-storm power outages remained one of the most significant challenges.

At one point Sunday, about 194,000 customers of the Washington D.C.-area utility were without power, down from 220,000 power-challenged customers earlier during the storm. More than 300 power lines were down in the District of Columbia and in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County in adjacent Maryland.

Outages were worse in North Carolina and Virginia, where Dominion Power was working to return service to 1.2 million customers. The outages were the company's second-largest, shadowed only by those inflicted by Hurricane Isabel.

After striking North Carolina, Irene lost some of its intensity as it prowled the coast, steadily accelerating its forward speed. Lower winds and faster passage tend to diminish the magnitude of coastal flooding.

Meteorologists said Irene’s core made a second landfall near Little Egg Inlet, N.J., north of Atlantic City, at 5:35 a.m. Sunday, as a minimal Category 1 hurricane with 75 mph sustained wind. It weakened slightly into a high-end tropical storm as the center reached Coney Island, in the New York borough of Brooklyn, at 9 a.m., with 65 mph wind.

Irene’s course carried the center right along New Jersey’s coast, through New York City and then into Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and points north. At times, tornado warnings flashed through the region. As the storm arrived, Manhattan’s usually busy streets were eerily empty, few people in sight, the entire city pounded by gray sheets of rain and bursts of wind that swirled around tall buildings and sought routes of escape. Rising water blocked several roads and intersections.

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers had evacuated homes near the shore. At least one hospital closed, moving patients to locations farther from sources of flooding. The city’s vast subway and bus system halted operations for the duration of the storm.

Water levels rose rapidly, with nearly four-foot storm surges reported Sunday morning at Sandy Hook, N.J., Cape May, N.J., and the famed New York Harbor.

Atop of that came the rain, up to 15 inches of it, a major source of anxiety, especially inland.

“These rains, combined with heavy rain over the past few weeks, could cause widespread flooding, life-threatening flash floods and significant uprooting of trees due to rain-softened grounds,” said hurricane forecaster Michael Brennan.

As if he and his colleagues didn’t have enough to worry about, Tropical Storm Jose developed Sunday morning in the Atlantic, south of Bermuda. It bypassed Bermuda and did not endanger the U.S. coast.

Irene’s first landfall came Saturday along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the storm crawling northeastward up the coast. The full extent of the damage still was not clear, with officials of some areas in the Carolinas and Virginia said the impact seemed to be less than expected, though others were still assessing local conditions.

In North Carolina, authorities mounted scores of operations to rescue people trapped by floods. The storm led to 100 “swift-water” rescues in Craven County and 26 people were rescued Saturday in Pamlico County, including two pregnant women and a pair of infants. Water rose so high there that the National Guard couldn't get through in pickup trucks, leaving some residents without aid until Sunday morning.

Heavy winds collapsed a mall roof in Wayne County and peeled away the roof of the county’s emergency 911 center. In Beaufort County, crews pulled a man from waist-high water after the walls of his mobile home collapsed.

"We've taken a hard hit," said Assistant Wayne County Manager Jack Veit.

Between New Bern and Washington, N.C., the smell of freshly split wood was prominent along U.S. 17. More than 100 50-to-60-foot trees had fallen – many taking power lines with them.

Kevin McKnight of New Bern was headed to Greenville when he tried to drive around a downed tree and through a muddy ditch with his Lexus SUV.

"I thought I could make it with my four-wheel drive," he said.

He couldn't. The Lexus ended up partially in water and partially in mud, awaiting a tow truck.

In Washington, N.C., which sits along the Pamlico River, the clock on the old courthouse on Market Street remained stuck at 7:21 a.m.

It was at that moment that the power failed on Saturday.

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