Irene floods US northeast, Manhattan spared worst

NEW YORK,  (Reuters) – Hurricane Irene swept through  Manhattan yesterday but reserved the worst of its fury for  towns and suburbs up and down the northeastern United States  where driving rain and flood tides inundated homes and cut  power to millions.

Residents inspect fallen power lines in Hampton Bays, New York yesterday. Hurricane Irene battered New York. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

On its march up the East Coast over the weekend, the storm  killed at least 20 people, left some 5 million homes and  businesses without electricity, caused widespread flooding and  downed thousands of trees. Suburban New Jersey and rural  Vermont were hit particularly hard.

Irene forced the closure of New York’s mass transit system,  which will crawl back to service on Monday starting at 6 a.m.  (1000 GMT), and the cancellation of thousands of flights, some  of which would resume today. Most of the commuter rail  service bringing commuters from the suburbs to New York City  would remain suspended.

President Barack Obama warned the region’s problems were  far from over. “Many Americans are still at risk of power  outages and flooding which could get worse in the coming days  as rivers swell past their banks,” Obama said, promising  federal government help for recovery efforts.

By late yesterday afternoon, Irene was bringing tropical storm  conditions to the six states of New England. Irene was still a  tropical storm, packing winds of 50 mph (80 kph) as it  approach-ed Canada, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much Irene would cost but  in New Jersey alone the damage was expected in “the billions of  dollars,” Governor Chris Christie told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

With many thousands of homeowners in the region suffering  flooding there will be many questions over whether insurance  policies offer cover and whether the federal government’s flood  program can handle the claims, especially at a time of  austerity in Washington and in cash-strapped states.

New York City’s 8.5 million people are not used to  hurricanes and the city is plagued by aging infrastructure,  leading many to issue dire warnings in recent days about what  the hurricane could bring.

Authorities took unprecedented steps to prepare, including  mandatory evacuations and a total shutdown of mass transit  systems that will have had a major economic impact.

About 370,000 city residents who had been ordered to leave  their homes were told they could return yesterday afternoon.

Most bridges, tunnels, subways and city buses will be  functioning normally, but the Metro-North and Long Island Rail  Road commuter rail would remain suspended, stranding commuters  who travel to Manhattan from suburbs to the north and east.

Rail service from New Jersey, home to hundreds of thousands  of people who travel into New York each day, was still out,  although limited bus services were expected to resume.

It all means that many who normally commute into Manhattan  and elsewhere in the region will find it very difficult to get  to work on Monday, though financial markets were expected to  open as normal, albeit with reduced volume.

“All in all we are in pretty good shape,” Mayor Michael  Bloomberg said, adding that while it would be a “tough commute”  on Monday there had been no long-term damage to the subway  system.

Bloomberg said there were no reports of deaths or injuries  in the city, though there were some close calls. In Staten  Island, firefighters with boats rescued more than 60 people  including three babies from 21 homes flooded with five feet  (1.5 metres) of water.

While it weakened before it hit New York, the swirling  storm still packed a wallop, especially in districts such as  the Rockaways peninsula, a low-lying strip of land exposed to  the Atlantic Ocean on the southeastern flank of the city.

Authorities closed three bridges leading to the peninsula  before the storm.

“It was like being in the hull of a ship,” said Patricia  Keane, 42, who stayed in her Rockaway home and lost power but  then used backup generators to supply electricity to herself  and four neighbors, who all had flooded basements.

 NEW JERSEY SLAMMED  

New Jersey was hard hit by flooding, downed trees and power  outages. More than 100 dams in the state were being monitored  for spills from high water, and one downstream town, High  Bridge, was evacuated, Christie said.

Four people were killed in Pennsylvania from the effects of  Hurricane Irene, including two men killed by falling trees, a  state official said. That raised the U.S. total to 20 dead in  addition to three who were killed in the Dominican Republic and  one in Puerto Rico when the storm was still in the Caribbean.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, whose state was hit  earlier by the Hurricane, told CNN “We prepared for the worst  but came out a little better than expected. Unfortunately now,  four fatalities have been confirmed,”

“We’ve got some significant damage in some areas, from  flooding, from wind, a lot of trees down, 2.5 million people or  more without power in Virginia, that’s the second largest  outage in history,” he said.

In North Carolina, where authorities confirmed at least six  storm-related deaths since the hurricane made landfall on  Saturday, Governor Bev Perdue was expected to request a federal  disaster declaration.

The storm dumped up to eight inches (20 cm) of rain on the  Washington region, but the capital avoided major damage.

As the storm moved north yesterday, New England officials  reported flooded roadways, trees downed over rail tracks and  evacuations in some towns.

The storm zone stretched from Massachusetts’ eastern  islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to the western  Berkshires mountain range, where authorities braced for dam  failures because of the heavy rains.

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