BY MICHAEL BOWMAN – Days after withstanding a rare earthquake, large swaths of the densely populated U.S. East Coast have weathered Irene, a once-powerful hurricane later downgraded to a tropical storm. Irene drenched New York Sunday after coming ashore over coastal areas farther south. At least 15 deaths are blamed on the storm, which prompted a massive mobilization of federal, state and local governments.
For three days, Irene pummeled the U.S. East Coast with high winds and torrential rains. Although no communities were obliterated, destruction is widespread over thousands of square kilometers with flooding, downed trees, damaged homes, power outages and impassable roads.
One Washington D.C. resident, who identified himself as Leonard, survived a harrowing night with his family after a giant tree fell on his home.
“It seemed like a pretty tame storm, and then all of a sudden these big oak trees started falling down on houses,” he said. “[I was] very scared. I have two little kids, a two-and-a-half year-old and a one-year-old.”
Untold numbers of travelers were stranded amid thousands of canceled flights. Irene prompted New York City’s first-ever subway closure due to a natural event.
But stoic New Yorkers seemed to take the storm in stride, including grocery store owner Faris Algabbon.
“Everybody buys a lot of stuff – for nothing. Nothing happened,” he said. “We only closed for a couple hours. Now we are open, and now we are good to go.”
Unlike last week’s sudden earthquake, Irene’s arrival was anticipated days in advance. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had a simple message for residents.
“Everyone should be prepared to go inside and stay inside,” he said.
In many areas, a prolonged period of clean-up and recovery awaits.
“We do not know how much damage has been done, how many trees are down on [train] tracks across New Jersey,” said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. “Clearing trees from our roadways.”
From Washington, a promise of federal assistance, and a warning issued by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“We are not out of the woods [safe from potential harm] yet,” she said. “Irene remains a large and potentially dangerous storm. Hazards still persist in communities that have already seen the storm pass.”
Hurricane or no, some events would not be postponed, including one New York wedding. A beaming bride, Sammy Miller, spoke from the steps of her church. “It is too important of a day to miss,” she said.
And some babies could not wait to be born. In a Wilmington, North Carolina hospital, Kristen Elliot cradled her infant daughter. “I just kind of felt that she [the baby] was going to come right during the hurricane,” she said.
Irene’s remnants are expected to dissipate over Canada later Monday.