Irene death toll hits 42, as recovery efforts are amped up
Officials in several states have stepped up their post-Irene rescue efforts, mobilizing to airlift supplies into isolated areas cut off by raging, rain-soaked rivers and streams three days after the storm swept across the eastern portion of the nation.
From its landfall Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane to its dissolution into scattered rain storms in New England, Irene was blamed Tuesday for at least 42 deaths in a dozen states.
Millions of people remained without power, with many of them expected to lack electricity through the forthcoming holiday weekend despite feverish work by crews to repair downed power lines. The financial losses are expected to hit the tens of billions of dollars.
Rescuers on Tuesday focused on rural regions, particularly Vermont, where a checkerboard of swollen streams flooded and isolated communities, prompting officials to begin ferrying supplies to those who have been cut off.
According to a posting on the website of the state’s Emergency Operations Center, at least 13 communities remained unreachable by vehicle due to road damage, and more than 200 roads were still impassable.
“The 13 isolated communities and another eight that have only limited access will be receiving food, water and other necessities from the state later today. These supplies will be trucked or flown in to communities, depending on accessibility, by the Vermont National Guard. The provisions were shipped in Monday night from the federal staging area in Massachusetts,” the agency said.
The need for air aid was also cited in New York, where at least 26 counties, perhaps as much as half of the state, were dealing with flooding, power outages, and closures of damaged roads and bridges, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.
Officials were airlifting supplies into isolated communities there as well. The New York Department of Transportation reported that some areas were inaccessible for assessment and may remain so for the immediate future.
Record flooding was reported in upstate river systems including the Hudson and Mohawk and Schoharie Creek. “At least four towns and villages are or were underwater,” Cuomo’s office noted in a compilation sent to the federal government along with a request for expedited aid. New York also reported that it was monitoring several dams along the rivers for possible failure.
States ask for federal money
New York was not alone in seeking federal money, and top Obama administration officials fanned out across the east to gauge the impact of the storm. Among those taking to the road were Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who were visiting North Carolina and Virginia, while Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate headed to Vermont. FEMA deputy administrator Rich Serino was planning to stop in Hartford, Conn., then travel to New Jersey.
The federal emissaries were expected to reassure local officials that the Obama administration was planning to help with emergency supplies. But the need was expected to be far greater.
Estimates of the financial damage varied, but Peter Morici, an economist at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, put the direct costs at $20 billion, mainly in the Northeast. Lost economic activity caused by closed restaurants and shops could add $20 billion more in losses, he estimated.
It was not clear how much the federal government, plagued by its own financial problems, could be expected to provide. Top Republicans have questioned whether the federal government could afford more money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, given the nation’s debt and other economic woes, and relief money could become part of the ongoing partisan battles over spending cuts and taxes.
Still, there was an offset. Money spent to rebuild storm-ravaged areas could create jobs, especially in construction. President Obama has been pushing for an infrastructure bank to stimulate the economy, and is expected to outline a proposal when he addresses the nation next week.
In New Jersey, seeking federal aid took on a bipartisan flavor, as Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, joined Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez to ask President Obama to expedite assistance. According to state websites, water levels in at least nine locations had reached or passed records.
“Hurricane Irene is a catastrophe of unusual severity and magnitude,” Christie wrote. “The storm conditions required emergency shelters to be established in 16 counties to house nearly 16,000 evacuees. Over 700,000 residences have suffered power outages, and rail services have been suspended throughout the state. The torrential rains have flooded both major and local roads, necessitating highway closures and impeding travel.
“The destruction will lead to severe hardship and the costs will be so great that many residents will not be able to rebuild their lives on their own. In addition, Hurricane Irene caused extensive damage to public infrastructure such as roads, bridges, public parks and government facilities, and local governments will face enormous challenges as they try to rebuild,” the senators wrote. “Given the severe nature of the hurricane and the extent of the damage, we ask that you immediately grant a major disaster declaration for New Jersey and expedite federal recovery and rebuilding aid.”
Some areas return to normalcy
Still not all of the news was dire. New York City, once thought to the bull’s eye of the storm, largely returned to normal. Most commuters were able to use the largest mass transit system in the world, which had been shut over the weekend as a precaution. However, in the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey, some commuting problems remained.
In North Carolina, where Irene first landed along the Outer Banks, about 1,000 people were reportedly still housed in shelters.
And at least 3 million people were without electricity.
“We prepared for the worst and got off a little bit better than we anticipated,” Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said in an interview with WTOP, posted on the commonwealth’s web site.
McDonnell said he hoped that his state would restore power to more than 90% of those without electricity by Friday.
“I know they are working 24/7,” McDonnell said. “We’re asking people to be patient.”
-- Michael Muskal
Photo: Workers grade an alternate roadbed alongside Route 4 in Mendon, Vt., on Tuesday, one of many washed out by floodwaters from Irene. Credit: AP / Toby Talbot