NEWFANE, Vt. — As emergency airlift operations brought ready-to-eat meals and water to Vermont residents left isolated and desperate, states along the Eastern Seaboard continued to be battered by the after effects of Irene, the destructive hurricane turned tropical storm.
infrastructure, 2.5 million people without power and thousands of water-logged homes and businesses continued to overshadow the lives of residents and officials from North Carolina through New England, where the storm has been blamed for at least 44 deaths in 13 states.
Raging floodwaters continued to ravage parts of northern New Jersey on Wednesday morning, even after the state’s rain-swollen rivers crested and slowly receded.
The Passaic River crested Tuesday night, causing extensive flooding and forcing a round of evacuations and rescues in Paterson, the state’s third-largest city.
“Been in Paterson all my life, I’m 62 years old, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said resident Gloria Moses as she gathered with others at the edge of what used to be a network of streets, now covered by a lake.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, after touring Wayne, through which the Passaic also flows, said Tuesday night he saw “just extraordinary despair.”
In Connecticut, the Connecticut River at Hartford crested Tuesday evening at 24.8 feet, the highest level since 1987, according to Nicole Belk, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, in Taunton, Mass. But she said levees helped minimize flooding in riverside communities.
She said the river could still rise slightly farther south, in Middletown, where some streets and neighborhoods were already experiencing minor flooding.
Denise Ruzicka, director of inland water resources for Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said flood control dams and basins that New England states installed after 1955 floods helped prevent a catastrophe in the lower Connecticut River basin.
She said all the rivers in the state will be receding by the end of the day.
“The worst is over,” she said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy toured hard-hit coastal areas — including a peninsula in Fairfield that was lined with heavily damaged homes on Long Island Sound.
Communities on the East Coast continued recovery efforts Tuesday, with people moving out of emergency shelters in western Massachusetts, farmers in New York’s battered Schoharie Valley assessing crop losses and an insurance agent in Pawtucket, R.I., fielding dozens of calls from customers making damage claims.
“The majority of the claims are trees down,” said Melanie Loiselle-Mongeon. “Trees on houses, on fences, on decks, on cars.”
In Vermont, officials focused on providing basic necessities to residents who in many cases still have no power, no telephone service and no way to get in or out of their towns.
On Tuesday night, 11 towns — Cavendish, Granville, Hancock, Killington, Mendon, Marlboro, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Stockbridge, Strafford and Wardsboro — were cut off from the outside.
But by Wednesday morning, all but one of the communities — Wardsboro– had been reached by ground crews, emergency management officials said.
And it’s hoped that Wardsboro can be reached Wednesday morning, said Emergency Management spokesman Robert Stirewalt
He said the crude roads are not for general use and are only passable by emergency vehicles.
Vermont National Guard choppers made three drops in Killington-Mendon, Pittsfield and Rochester Tuesday while 10 other towns received truck deliveries of food, blankets, tarps and water.
Eight Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters from the Illinois National Guard are expected to arrive Wednesday to bolster the number of flights.
Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate told CBS’s “The Early Show” a drawdown in assistance funds will have no negative impact on the agency’s efforts to help stricken Eastern Seaboard states. The agency has less than $800 million left in its disaster coffers.
“We’re going to do what we’re supposed to do,” he said in the interview Wednesday morning.
“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.”
Fugate said FEMA’s current focus is on Hurricane Irene recovery efforts and said it must also gird for any new disasters.
“We don’t know what’s coming down the line,” he said.
Up to 11 inches of rain triggered the deluges, which knocked houses off their foundations, destroyed covered bridges and caused earthquake-style damage to infrastructure all over Vermont.
Vermont residents trapped in inaccessible communities used cellphones and computers to reach out to others.
Wendy Pratt, another of the few townspeople able to communicate with the outside world, posted an update on Facebook using a generator and a satellite Internet connection. She sketched a picture of both devastation and New England neighborliness.
“People have lost their homes, their belongings, businesses … the cemetery was flooded and caskets were lost down the river. So many areas of complete devastation,” Pratt wrote. “In town there is no cell service or internet service – all phones in town are out. We had a big town meeting at the church at 4 this afternoon to get any updates.”
In Woodstock, Vt., Michael Ricci spent the day clearing debris from his backyard along the Ottauquechee River. What had been a meticulously mowed, sloping grass lawn and gorgeous flower beds was now a muddy expanse littered with debris, including wooden boards, propane tanks and a deer hunting target.
“The things we saw go down the river were just incredible,” Ricci said. “Sheds, picnic tables, propane tanks, furnaces, refrigerators. We weren’t prepared for that. We had prepared for wind and what we ended up with was more water than I could possibly, possibly have imagined.” He said the water in his yard was almost up to the house, or about 15 to 20 feet above normal.
Volunteers in Windham, N.Y., helped 26-year-old Antonia Schreiber salvage the floors of the 200-year-old Victorian cottage she had transformed into a luxury day spa.
The ski town, high in the Catskill Mountains, was left under several feet of brick-red water Sunday night after a stony creek, the Batavia Kill, grew to a raging river fueled by a foot of rain.
“Friends, loved ones, people I don’t even know showed up with trucks, bulldozers and hugs,” she said as men and women scraped and mopped around her. “The magnitude of generosity and good will is just overwhelming.”
While East Coast residents measured the cost of the storm in waterlogged cars and ruined furniture, official predictions were more dire.
In North Carolina, where Irene blew ashore along the Outer Banks on Saturday before heading for New York and New England, Gov. Beverly Perdue said the hurricane destroyed more than 1,100 homes and caused at least $70 million in damage.
Early Wednesday, President Barack 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. Irene destroyed 500 to 600 homes and thousands of acres of farmland in upstate New York.
Total losses from the storm along the U.S. Atlantic Coast — including damage and expenses incurred by governments — are likely to be about $7 billion, according to Jan Vermeiren, CEO of Silver Spring, Md.-based risk consultant Kinetic Analysis Corp., which uses computer models to estimate storm losses.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA’s Fugate will tour New York and New Jersey Wednesday to view the damage firsthand. Trips to other states affected by the storm are being planned.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press Holly Ramer in Woodstock, Vt., Lisa Rathke, Wilson Ring and Dave Gram in Montpelier, David Porter and Samantha Henry in Lodi, N.J., Stephen Dockery in Fairfield, Conn., David Klepper and Laura Crimaldi in Providence, R.I., and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y.