Food, water rushed to cut-off US towns

Newfane - US National Guard helicopters rushed food and water to a dozen cut-off towns in the north-eastern state of Vermont after the rainy remnants of Hurricane Irene washed out roads and bridges in a deluge that took many people in the landlocked New England state by surprise.

Up to 28cm of rain from the weekend storm turned placid streams into churning, brown torrents that splintered buildings, knocked homes off their foundations, flattened trees and took giant bites out of the asphalt across the countryside. At least three people died in Vermont.

"I think that people are still a little shell-shocked right now. There's just a lot of disbelief on people's faces. It came through so quickly, and there's so much damage," Gail Devine, director of the Woodstock Recreation Centre, said on Tuesday as volunteers moved furniture out of the flooded basement and shovelled out thick mud that filled the centre’s two swimming pools.

As crews raced to repair the roads, the National Guard began flying in supplies to Vermont's flooded towns. The Guard also used heavy-duty vehicles to bring relief to flood-stricken communities still reachable by road.

Life-and-death situation

"If it's a life-and-death situation, where someone needs to be Medevac-ed or taken to a hospital, we would get a helicopter there to airlift them out, if we could get close to them. A lot of these areas are mountainous areas where there may not be a place to land," said Mark Bosma, a spokesperson for Vermont Emergency Management.

There were no immediate reports of anyone rescued by helicopter. But it took a relay operation involving two ambulances and an all-terrain vehicle to take a woman in respiratory distress to a hospital about 21km away, after floodwaters severed a road, Rutland Regional Medical Centre President Tom Hubner said. The patient, whose name was not released, was doing fine, he said.

In Rochester, where telephones were out and damage was severe, people could be seen from helicopters standing in line outside a grocery store. McKinley said the town's restaurants and a supermarket were giving food away rather than let it spoil, and townspeople were helping each other.

"We've been fine so far. The worst part is not being able to communicate with the rest of the state and know when people are coming in," he said. He said government agencies did a good job of warning people about the storm. "But here in Vermont, I think we just didn't expect it and didn't prepare for it," he said. "We heard all types of warnings, but I just didn't take it seriously. I thought, how could it happen here?"

Communication


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 said the town was devastated and there was no way out. But she also sketched a picture of New England neighbourliness.

"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."

All together, the storm has been blamed for at least 49 deaths. Forty-four of those were in the continental US and Puerto Rico.

Five people were killed in the Dominican Republic and Haiti as Irene blew through the Caribbean. No deaths were reported in the Bahamas despite the islands taking a direct hit.

A Canadian driver was missing after a road collapsed and swallowed two cars about 100km northeast of Montreal. Police are investigating whether an 81-year-old Quebec man who died after being found unconscious in the storm was killed by Irene.

Electricity

More than 2.5 million people from North Carolina to Maine were still without electricity on Tuesday, three days after the hurricane churned up the Eastern Seaboard.

Hydro-Quebec was still restoring power to 21 600 clients. Nearly 250 000 Hydro-Quebec customers had lost power on Sunday night.

While all eyes were on the coast as Irene swirled northward, some of the worst destruction took place well inland, away from the storm's most punishing winds. In Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin called it the worst flooding in a century. Small towns in upstate New York — especially in the Catskills and the Adirondacks — were also besieged by floodwaters.

In Pittsfield, Vermont, newlyweds Marc Leibowitz and Janina Stegmeyer of New York City were stranded on Sunday along with members of the wedding party and dozens of their guests after floodwaters swamped the couple's honeymoon cottage. The honeymooners narrowly escaped in a four-wheel-drive rental car just before a bridge behind them collapsed.

More than a dozen of the 60 or so guests were airlifted out by private helicopters on Tuesday.

Vermont emergency officials and the US National Weather Service warned before the storm about the potential for heavy rain and flooding. On Thursday, Shumlin recommended stocking up on enough food, water and other supplies to last three days.

Expensive Damage

On Monday, he defended his state's decision not to undertake extensive evacuations before the storm arrived, noting that it was too hard to predict which communities were in danger. "What are you going to do, evacuate the entire state of Vermont?" he asked.

Approximately 260 roads in Vermont were closed because of storm damage, along with about 30 highway bridges. Vermont Deputy Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said the infrastructure damage was in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Relief supplies arrived at Vermont's National Guard headquarters early on Tuesday in a convoy of 30 trucks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Accompanied by Shumlin, Fema administrator Craig Fugate toured the state by helicopter on Tuesday to survey the damage.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, where Irene blew ashore along the Outer Banks on Saturday before heading for New York and New England, Governor Beverly Perdue said the hurricane destroyed more than 1 100 homes and caused at least $70m in damage.

Airlines said it would be days before the thousands of passengers stranded by Irene find their way home. Amtrak service was still out on Tuesday between Philadelphia and New York because of flooding in Trenton. Commuter train service between New Jersey and New York City resumed on Tuesday, except for one line that was still dealing with flooding.

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