Irene cleanup could take days along East Coast

By Bruce Smith and Tom Breen

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 5:11 p.m. MDT

Janie Gibbs helps clean up a friend's destroyed home Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011 after it was hit by Hurricane Irene Saturday in Columbia, N.C. The storm killed at least 14 people and left 4 million homes and businesses without power. It unloaded more than a foot of water on North Carolina and spun off tornadoes in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Associated Press

WILMINGTON, N.C. — With Irene gone, cleanup crews began pumping water out of soggy subway tunnels, fixing traffic lights in the nation's capital and clearing debris from hundreds of roads as the East Coast readied for the workweek. While early indications were that the damage was not as bad as feared, it will be days before things get back to normal in many places.

More than 4 million homes and businesses along the coast still did not have power Sunday. Roads were impassable because of high water, fallen trees and downed power lines. And while the full extent of the damage was not known, early estimates put it in the billions of dollars.

Up and down the coast, the images were the same: Siding peeled from houses; boats torn from moorings and thrown ashore; massive trees ripped from the ground; and cars submerged beneath flood waters. In the hardest-hit areas, pockets of about 20 homes were destroyed.

For many, though, the storm was more inconvenience than calamity.

In Ocean City, Md., Charlie Koetzle ignored evacuation orders and went to the boardwalk before dawn in his swim trunks and flip-flops, saying he always wanted to see a hurricane. Asked about damage, he mentioned a sign that blew down.

"The beach is still here, and there is lots of it," he said. "I don't think it was as bad as they said it was going to be."

Some cell phone networks were knocked out in coastal North Carolina and Virginia, and regulators warned more towers could go silent as backup batteries and generators run dry. At least 125,000 people were without landline service.

Irene bruised the Caribbean and touched nearly every state on the Eastern Seaboard as it moved toward Canada. The storm brought torrential rains and powerful winds, stretching 300 miles from the center at one point.

Irene made landfall in the U.S. on Saturday morning over North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane. By Sunday, it was reduced to a tropical storm near New York.

In the Northeast, flooding was still a major threat after a rainy August soaked the ground. Rivers swelled over banks, and forecasters warned it could be days before rivers crest as runoff makes its way into creeks and streams.

Flood waters were rising across New Jersey, closing side streets and major highways including the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 295. In Essex County, authorities used a five-ton truck to ferry people away from their homes as the Passaic River neared its expected crest Sunday night. In Massachusetts, the National Guard was helping people evacuate from low-lying areas.

The Monday morning commute into Manhattan and Washington promised to be a headache. It wasn't clear when the New York subways — which carry 5 million people on an average weekday — would be running again after an unprecedented shutdown. And in Washington, the Metro was running but outages knocked more than 150 stoplights out in the Baltimore-Washington area. There was so much confusion that Maryland State Police declared it the most serious hazard of the day.

Irene brought six inches to a foot of rain to many places along the East Coast. In one eastern North Carolina neighborhood, two dozen homes were destroyed by flooding, and officials feared more damage could be uncovered there. Along the shore of Long Island Sound in East Haven, Conn., another 20 homes were destroyed by the Irene's surf, many reduced to a pile of rubble.

The lone road connecting the remote North Carolina barrier islands known as the Outer Banks to the mainland was washed out, making it difficult for emergency crews to know exactly what happened there. About 2,500 people on Hatteras Island were cut off, and authorities sent a ferry Sunday full of supply trucks carrying food, water and generators. Cell service was spotty, and cars were out on the roads, making it tough for highway crews.

The possibility of days or even weeks without electricity was a dangerous prospect for some.

Pat Dillon, who lives in a nursing home in Milford, Conn., was scared about what would happen if the power didn't come back on soon. Dillon is a diabetic who uses an electric wheelchair. Her insulin will spoil without refrigeration and she won't be able to get around if she can't charge the wheelchair soon.

"What if we're without power for days?" she said.

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