Major cities including New York took unprecedented evacuation measures and were largely spared the full wrath of Irene, which was downgraded on Sunday to a tropical storm as it drenched a vast stretch of the east coast.
But the storm, which began leaving a trail of carnage a week ago in the Caribbean, refused to go out with a whimper, ravaging virtually the entire state of Vermont before crossing into Canada.
“We’re going to be digging out for a long time. Irene really whacked us hard,” Governor Peter Shumlin told Vermont Public Radio.
At the White House, President Barack Obama voiced concern about the flooding in Vermont and other states in the northeastern region of New England. “It’s going to take time to recover from a storm of this magnitude,” he said.
The top US disaster official, Craig Fugate, said around five million people remained without electricity, many farther south in states like Virginia, and that it would take “some time to get all of the power back up.”
Vermont, a mountainous state criss-crossed by numerous streams and rivers, saw floods in virtually all major towns, including the capital Montpelier, where water levels began to recede on Monday.
“We are in uncharted territory,” said Joe Kraus of the Central Vermont Public Service. “In many places, we can’t even get to the damage.”
Dramatic television pictures from upstate New York and Vermont showed dangerous flash floods sweeping through residential areas and vast stretches of cascading water out in the country where rivers had burst their banks.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will visit Virginia and North Carolina on Tuesday, while Fugate will head to Vermont to assess the situation there, the government said Monday.
In the Vermont town of West Brattleboro, which virtually looked like a beach with sand, rocks and debris scattered about, neighbors came out to help one another by lending power generators and chainsaws to clear fallen trees.
Albert Bernier, who lives in a trailer park, washed and oiled a wide collection of tools to get to work on repairs but feared that the damage was insurmountable.
“I’ve had enough. I’m not moving back,” said Bernier, who along with his wife Penny is staying with family for now.
While sun returned to most of the eastern United States, conditions were still risky. National Weather Service expert David Vallee said that key rivers such as the Connecticut were not likely to crest until Wednesday.
And Vallee said that conditions before the storm, including recent heavy rains, had made the ground wet and prone to flooding.
Officials and local media reported at least 38 deaths across 11 states, with six deaths each in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina, where Irene made landfall Saturday with winds upwards of 85 miles (140 kilometers) an hour.
The youngest fatalities were a boy killed by a falling tree in his apartment in Newport News, a city on a coastal peninsula in Virginia, and a girl who died in North Carolina.
Two others were missing and presumed dead, police said — a Canadian man whose car plunged into a chasm after the road was washed away, and a person in Vermont whose companion also perished after being swept away by floodwaters.
The hurricane earlier last week killed at least five people in the Caribbean — two each in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and one in the US commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The Obama administration and local authorities defended the mass evacuations for Irene. The disaster struck just ahead of Monday’s sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which killed at least 1,500 people and raised questions about then president George W. Bush’s leadership.
“We can’t wait to know how bad it is before we get ready. We have to go fast — we have to base it upon the potential impacts,” Fugate said.
Eqecat Inc., a catastrophic risk management firm, estimated that damage to the eastern United States from the hurricane could reach up to $7 billion.
But Wall Street rallied in part on relief of limited damage to the infrastructure of the world’s largest economy.
New York’s subway, which was closed Saturday in an unprecedented act of caution, reopened Monday morning, though many suburban trains and national rail operator Amtrak reported major disruptions.