Aug. 29, 2011
MONTEPELIER, Vt. — Vermont towns battled floods of historic proportions, utility crews struggled to restore power to 5 million people along the East Coast, and big-city commuters coped with transit-system disruptions Monday as the rainy remnants of Hurricane Irene finally spun into Canada.
The storm killed at least two dozen people, forced the cancellation of about 9,000 flights, washed away roads and bridges and toppled trees and power lines.
It never became the big-city nightmare forecasters and public officials had warned about, but it caused severe flooding in New England, well inland from the coastal areas that bore the brunt of the storm's winds.
In Vermont and upstate New York, normally placid streams turned into raging torrents tumbling with tree limbs, cars and parts of bridges.
Hundreds of Vermonters were told to leave their homes after Irene dumped several inches of rain on the landlocked state. Gov. Peter Shumlin called it the worst flooding in a century, and the state was declared a federal disaster area.
Communities were cut off, roads washed out, and at least a dozen bridges lost, including at least three historic covered bridges.
"We prepared for the worst and we got the worst in central and southern Vermont," Shumlin said Monday. "We have extraordinary infrastructure damage."
Video posted on Facebook showed a 141-year-old covered bridge in Rockingham, Vt., swept away by the roiling, 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.
Officials at one point thought they might have to flood the state capital, Montpelier, to relieve pressure on a dam. But by Monday morning that threat had eased.
President Barack Obama, speaking from the Rose Garden, pledged the federal government would be doing everything in its power to ensure people have what they need to get back on their feet, saying it will take time to recover from the storm.
Across the Northeast, commuters coped with slowly restarting transit systems as the workweek began.
In New York City, limited bus service began Sunday and subway service was partially restored at 6 a.m. Monday. Commuter rail service to Long Island and New Jersey was being partially restored, but trains from the city's northern suburbs were suspended because of flooding and mudslides. New Jersey Transit rail service into the city was suspended as crews assessed storm damage and made necessary repairs.
Riders were warned to expect long lines and long waits, but early commuters reported empty subways and smooth rides.
Mentor Vargas, 54, said he made his 40-minute trip on a New York subway train without incident. "It seems people aren't going to work today," he said on his way to work at a repair company in Staten Island.
Likewise, Philadelphia's transit system was mostly restarted Monday, though some train lines weren't running because of downed trees and wire damage.
Utilities scrambled to restore power across the Eastern Seaboard with help from thousands of out-of-state repair crews, but it could be days before the lights are back on in some homes.
Irene smashed power poles, ripped transmission wires and flooded electrical stations over the weekend, blacking out more than 7.4 million homes and businesses from South Carolina to Maine. Nearly 5 million power customers remained in the dark.
The New York Stock Exchange was open for business as usual Monday.
Airports in New York and around the Northeast reopened to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of passengers whose flights were canceled over the weekend.
One private estimate put damage along the coast at $7 billion, far from any record for a natural disaster.
Irene had at one time been a major hurricane, with winds higher than 110 mph as it headed toward the U.S. It was a tropical storm with 65 mph winds by the time it hit New York. It had broken up and slowed to 50 mph by the time it reached Canada.
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.
At least 25 people died in the U.S., most of them when trees crashed through roofs or onto cars. One Vermont woman was swept away and feared drowned in the Deerfield River.
Communities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware River prepared for possible flooding but got a bit of good news Monday when the National Weather Service lowered the expected crest level of the river. In Pennsylvania, the Schuylkill River was steadily dropping.
In Pompton Lakes, N.J., a house exploded in an evacuated flood zone early Monday. No injuries were reported. Officials said natural gas service had not been turned off in the neighborhood.
In the South, authorities still 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 neighborhood where large, old-growth trees uprooted and crushed houses and automobiles.