In Irene's wake: Relief despite damage and deaths
As Hurricane Irene approached, spectacular satellite images encouraged some to fear the worst. But now, as the weakened storm moseys from New York into New England, you can't see a sigh of relief from outer space.
But that was the overriding sentiment for millions of people on the Eastern Seaboard on Sunday who awoke to widespread flooding, downed trees and the inconvenience of power outages and road closures, but not the catastrophic damage they had feared.
"We did all right,’’ said Hal Denny, mayor of Southern Shores, N.C., a beach town on the Outer Banks, where the worst damage was wrought on trees, dozens of which were uprooted.
Still, Irene was deadly.
"People have lost lives, I don't think you can say we dodged a bullet," said Federal Emergency Management Agency head Craig Fugate.
At least 19 people were killed in various storm-related accidents from Florida to Connecticut, and the death toll was expected to rise. In Harrisburg, Pa., a man sleeping outside with a group of friends died when a tree fell on his tent, police said.
And up to four million power customers, fairly evenly scattered along the hurricane’s path, still had no electricity on Sunday afternoon.
Across the length of the hurricane’s path, hundreds if not thousands of roads remained closed. In New York, authorities reopened tunnels and bridges but the city’s public transportation system remained shut down.
Despite a sense that the emergency was over, authorities warned people in the hardest hit areas to stay in their homes until ground conditions were fully assessed. They also cautioned that Irene still threatened to flood parts of New England as it lumbered northward toward New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
"I am particularly concerned about downed power lines,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said 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."
Christie said authorities were keeping an eye on dams in the state, where rivers were swollen by as much as eight inches of rain.
In North Carolina, as the state began to assess the damage from the storm, swift water rescue teams recovered more than 200 people stranded in their homes by floodwaters, authorities said. At least 76 people were rescued in hard-hit Beaufort County in eastern North Carolina along the Pamlico Sound. Nine people were rescued by boat in Northampton County near the Virginia border.
North Carolina and federal emergency management teams flew over affected areas Sunday to assess damage and look for people cut off by floodwaters. At least 225 roads were reported closed by floodwaters or debris, and 21 bridges were shut down, said Ernie Seneca, a spokesman for the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management.
"I think it is safe to say that the worst of the storm, at least up to and including New York and New Jersey, has passed," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at briefing at FEMA headquarters in Washington. But she added, "We're not out of the woods yet. Irene remains a large and potentially dangerous storm."
National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said the storm was likely to produce flooding as it continued to move through the Northeast.
"Our anticipation is with the rainfall going up into the river systems of New Hampshire and Vermont that we could see record flooding," Read said.
The storm’s slow and steady churn along the mid-Atlantic coast may have spared the New York metropolitan area, Read said. After making landfall in North Carolina, Irene "never was far off land the rest of its trek up the Eastern Seaboard," Read said. "And that kept it from getting stronger" as it approached New York.
Many college campuses changed the move-in schedule for students about to start the fall semester. At College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, about 40 miles west of Boston, returning students were told to wait until Monday. Incoming freshman, who had moved in Saturday, were under "shelter in place" instructions on Sunday morning.
Harvard College opened its dormitories Thursday, two days early, to help students avoid storm-related delay.
As the rain slowed, people in the hurricane’s path shared their stories. In Brooklyn Heights, neighbors contemplated the end of a controversial 80-year-old elm tree that toppled without warning in high wind. The tree graced the property of a residential co-op, whose board had threatened to tear it down in 2007. "We really fought for it to stay up, but God had different plans," said Sebastian Lamicella, who had threatened to chain himself to the tree to save it.
In South Freeport, N.Y., on Long Island just outside Brooklyn, 23-year-old Nick Dionisio waited out the storm in his home a block from the beach so he could protect his property, including two boats. The water in front of his house peaked at about four feet off the ground.
"We’re sitting in front of the house and things are floating by like in a river – benches, trees, the whole nine yards," Dionisio said. "It is more water than I’ve ever seen down here."
-- Robin Abcarian, with Tina Susman, David Zucchino, Nathaniel Popper and Kim Geiger
Photo: A family inspects a downed tree in Central Park. Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images