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Vermont, Northeast struggle to clean up from Irene's floods

August 31, 2011 | 11:14 am

Click here for more photos of Hurricane Irene.
Vermont officials were struggling Wednesday to deliver supplies to flooded communities but were making some headway in dealing with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, called by one top official the worst natural disaster in the state’s history.

Roads were open to at least emergency vehicles across the state, though some communities including Stratton and Rochester were still barely accessible, according to the Vermont Emergency Operations Center.

“Air and ground operations are being carried out to deliver supplies to communities that have been cut off by flooding or have limited access and need supplies,” the agency said of National Guard efforts to bring in aid. “The supplies include water, food, medicine, diapers, [baby] formula and other necessities.”

PHOTOS: In the path of the storm

With road travel limited, the state has been bringing in supplies by air. “The Guard operated with two helicopters today. The Guard also trucked in supplies to communities that and will add between four and eight additional aircraft tonight,” the agency said.

“It’s very bad,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said on MSNBC a day after he toured damaged areas of his state. He said as far as he could recall, the storm “was the worst natural disaster in the history of Vermont.”

Vermont’s situation was perhaps the most complicated of the cleanup efforts in the wake of Irene, which reached the United States on Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane and moved up the East Coast into New England as a tropical storm. At least 44 deaths have been reported in 13 states and an estimated 2 million people remained without electrical power Wednesday.

But the recovery was a major headache as well in upstate New York and in New Jersey. where federal emergency officials were scheduled to tour later in the day.

In New Jersey, the Ramapo, Pompton and Passaic rivers crested and started to slowly recede, according to the Wayne township website. "Roadway flooding remains prevalent in all impacted areas. Major roadways along the southern border of the township remained closed.”

More than 10,000 evacuees were still waiting to return to their homes, according to Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management. There have been more than 100 rescues of people cut off by the floodwaters, she said in a telephone interview. About 190,000 people remained without power.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office reported that power had been restored to about 78% of the areas that were hit by Irene. But that still left an estimated 329,000 people without electricity, the governor’s office said. Long Island had the lowest restoration rate at 64%, while Con Edison, which mainly serves New York City, had the highest at 92%.

Most utilities were hoping to have full restoration by midnight on Friday, but delays were expected in the Schoharie and Mohawk areas because of heavy flooding, according to the governor’s office.

Federal officials, including Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano visited several of the storm-damaged areas Tuesday and were continuing their tours in the Northeast on Wednesday. They were expected to meet with local officials, including Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Speaking on CBS’ "The Early Show," Fugate said the agency would be able to fulfill its obligations even though it had less than $800 million in its disaster relief coffers.

“We're going to do what we're supposed to do,” he said. “We start with lifesaving and look at the critical needs, the power outages and recovery. We are still in very much a rescue operation. Yesterday, still, rescue operations were going on here in New York.”

Early Wednesday, President Obama declared a major disaster in New York, freeing up federal recovery funds for people in eight counties. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs, according to the White House.

Irene destroyed 500 to 600 homes and thousands of acres of farmland in upstate New York.

Obama also declared a major disaster for North Carolina, the White House announced.


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-- Michael Muskal

Photo: National Guard troops stack emergency provisions in Colchester, Vt. Credit: Toby Talbot / Associated Press