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Stephan Savoia, Associated Press
The surf ponds the breakers along Ocean Drive during the effects of Tropical Storm Irene, downgraded from a hurricane, in Newport, RI., Sunday morning, Aug. 28, 2011. Irene caused more than 4.5 million homes and businesses along the East Coast to reportedly lose power over the weekend, and at least 11 deaths were blamed on the storm.

WARWICK, R.I. — Almost 300,000 Rhode Island utility customers were without power at the start of the work week Monday after "catastrophic" outages from Tropical Storm Irene. Officials warned it would be days before electricity would be back for everyone.

"We're in tough shape here with power outages," Gov. Lincoln Chafee said.

National Grid reported more than 297,000 customers in Rhode Island without power Monday morning, including 131,000 in Providence. Chafee said the utility had characterized the outages, described as the worst since Hurricane Bob in 1991, at the most serious level.

He noted that the Sunday storm, which was downgraded from a hurricane, had spared Rhode Island the worst but said there are "tough days ahead."

"Rhode Islanders have survived the passing of Irene without loss of life or serious injury and with great courage," he said in a statement Sunday night. "I am confident we will get through the next few days of recovery with the same solid resolve."

Two major transmission lines, including one near Newport, were damaged and more than 20 substations were down, National Grid President Timothy Horan said.

Horan said the priority is to restore electricity to hospitals and other centers serving public safety; 600 workers are assessing and addressing damage in every corner of the state. State police said the majority of Rhode Island's traffic signals were not working and urged motorists to use extreme caution.

Chafee and Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Suttell announced that state offices and courts would open as normal on Monday.

Kevin McBride, the director of the state's Emergency Management Agency, said Rhode Island's Emergency Operations Center would remain open as officials assess the damage and develop a recovery plan.

He said the Rhode Island National Guard was preparing to take Chafee, other state officials and federal officials on a helicopter tour Monday to view the damage.

At Back Street Bar & Grill in Warwick, owner Jim Moranto was fretting Sunday afternoon over lost power, which meant lost business.

"Nobody can afford to shut down in this economy even for a day," said Moranto.

He was using a generator to prevent his food supplies from spoiling, but it was too small to power all his freezers, refrigerators and beer coolers, so he spent much of Sunday switching his power from one to the next.

"I know it could have been worse, but this is bad enough," he said.

National Guard members and a local police officer directed traffic on one Warwick Street while a downed power line was safely moved in front of Paul Hurtubise's home. Hurtubise lost a hulking maple tree to the storm, but the old tree managed to miss his home, his cars and his family.

"We were lucky," he said with a grin. "God laid it down just perfect."

Earlier in the day, officials had blocked off the main coastal road in Narragansett, parts of which were under mandatory evacuation orders, and six National Guard Humvees were parked in the area.

A few dozen people rode out the storm at a shelter there, playing solitaire, eating doughnuts and listening to battery-powered radios at the high school.

Dave Tomson stayed at the shelter Saturday night after leaving his home in the ocean-front Jerusalem community. He drove back Sunday morning to check on his home and found a half-foot of water on the road. Thirty minutes later, it had risen to over a foot and his SUV struggled to get through. He hurried back to the shelter.

"The water was moving in like a freight train. It's a horrible feeling knowing your house is in the middle of this," he said.

Several other communities, including Bristol, Charlestown, South Kingstown and Westerly, also issued mandatory evacuation orders for some residents. Other issued voluntary evacuation notices.

Despite warnings, a few residents ventured out to watch as waves splashed over the wall lining Ocean Road in Narragansett.

"This is when you see the power of the ocean," said resident Ted DeFeo. "You gotta respect that."

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Gary Polk, who lives on Ocean Road, came out to see if he should evacuate. "I'm outside to see if the waves come up to the foundation," he said. "If it does I'm leaving."

In Warwick, Michael DeMarco was one of several residents to leave their darkened homes to walk the streets Sunday, mostly for something to do. He was at Warwick's Oakland Beach area, where city crews had blocked off access to some streets because of downed power lines, trees and still dangerous wind gusts from Narragansett Bay.

"Nothing's open, there's no power," he said. "There's not much you can do but wait."

Niedowski reported from Providence.