Some Beach Areas Stunned By Irene's Mild Touch

Hurricane Irene did not turn to be the storm of the century. It did, however, cause millions to lose power, forced hundreds of thousands to be evacuated and resulted in a number of fatalities. Still, many in beach towns remarked at how lucky they were.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. David Greene remains in our studios here, as Renee Montagne heads for Afghanistan. David, good morning.

DAVID GREENE, host:

Good morning to you, Steve.

Hurricane Irene was not quite the catastrophe that some had feared. But as the storm passes by, the damage is looking dramatic enough.

INSKEEP: More than 20 people died. About four million lost power. And President Obama said last night the recovery effort will last for weeks or longer.

GREENE: In just a moment, we'll get a look around Vermont, one of the last places the storm visited on its way up to Canada.

INSKEEP: We begin with NPR's Larry Abramson, who tracked Irene's path up the East Coast.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Irene did not turn out to be the storm of the century. As this former hurricane moved north into Canada on Sunday, many beach towns were stunned by how lucky they were. The entire town of Ocean City, Maryland was evacuated in advance of Irene because this barrier island is so vulnerable to wind and storm surge. But City Manager Dennis Dare says he was able to reopen the boardwalk to tourists by Sunday afternoon.

Mr. DENNIS DARE (City Manager, Ocean City, Maryland): Thankfully, the storm has deteriorated to the point that it spared Ocean City any major damage and we've been able to quickly restore the town and open it back up in time for the great weather that's coming up.

ABRAMSON: That's a big relief for beach communities looking forward to a lucrative Labor Day weekend. But in other coastal areas, memories of the storm won't go away so quickly. In eastern North Carolina, where the storm first made landfall, Irene's winds caused serious damage. A storm surge cut Hatteras Island in two, much as Hurricane Isabel did in 2003. That leaves roughly 2,500 residents marooned on the island.

North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue says she'll be asking for federal help to fix that road.

Governor BEVERLY PERDUE (Democrat, North Carolina): I have all reason to believe we'll get whatever help we can get, including, I hope, something about the insults to Highway 12.

ABRAMSON: As Irene moved up the coast, the storm's winds slowed, and it was downgraded to a tropical storm by Sunday. But the system continued to produce impressive amounts of rain.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told residents they should stay home from work on Monday if they can.

Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE (Republican, New Jersey): This storm is transitioning into a flooding event. We're going to experience major flooding. Some rivers haven't crested yet and it's still raining in various parts of the state.

ABRAMSON: Long Island escaped the direct hit that had been forecast.

Unidentified Man: Hit it.

(Soundbite of car motor and honking)

ABRAMSON: On Mastic Beach, residents teamed up to free a truck that was stuck in the mud. The Long Island Power Authority said nearly half a million people lost power in their service area alone, half of all its customers.

Spokeswoman Vanessa Baird Streeter says heavy rains loosed tree roots, making them easy pickings when the winds hit.

Ms. VANESSA BAIRD STREETER (Long Island Power Authority): So really most of the damage is trees falling down on power lines, trees falling down on poles, trees falling down on transformers. A 36-inch diameter tree coming down on a 12-inch pole, the tree is going to win every time.

ABRAMSON: New York City had ordered 370,000 people to evacuate low-lying areas, but in the end, damage to the city was light. New Yorker Ray Marshal says he waited out the storm in a bar and was not impressed.

Mr. RAY MARSHAL: It was like a little rainstorm. I think it was a little bit blown out of proportion.

ABRAMSON: Irene was surprising to many, either because it was not as bad as expected, or because it was so intense. In Rhode Island, power was cut off to as many as half the state's residents.

Bill Derrig of Warwick, Rhode Island stood looking out at the surf that pounded a beach on Narragansett Bay.

Mr. BILL DERRIG: I didn't understand how powerful this would be. I've got plywood that's been ripped off my house that I thought I'd screwed down pretty well. I wasn't really prepared.

ABRAMSON: While Irene's maximum wind speed might not compare with other legendary storms, this hurricane had tremendous reach. A couple of days after the storm beat up on North Carolina, it still had enough strength to pummel Vermont and other parts of New England. That led to widespread flooding that's expected to continue for some time.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said people need to keep their guard up.

Ms. JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): We're not out of the woods yet. Irene remains a large and potentially dangerous storm. Hazards still persist in communities that have already seen the storm pass.

ABRAMSON: Continued flooding will make life interesting for the next few days. Transit authorities in hard-hit areas warn commuters to expect delays that will likely include limited service on New York's mass transit system. The same goes for air travel. More than 11,000 flights were cancelled over the weekend, one more legacy of a storm that could have been worse, but was plenty bad.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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