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US coast counts the cost of Irene

By Stephen Foley

Residents of the north-eastern United States are counting the cost of a rare hurricane that swept through some of the country's most densely-populated cities, causing extensive flooding but sparing the region much of the damage that had been feared.

The death toll from Hurricane Irene stood at 13 last night and flood warnings remained in place in many areas.

Officials warned it would take days for normal life to resume in major metropolitan centres such as New York, where the mass transport system remained completely shut down for the first time due to weather.

North Carolina on Saturday and New Jersey yesterday bore the brunt of the hurricane, which had weakened to a tropical storm by the time it hit New York mid-morning and was petering out as it headed towards the Canadian border.

Dozens of families had to be helped from their flooded homes, and Irene knocked out power to more than four million homes and businesses, the result of downed power lines and floods from swollen rivers and coastal storm surges.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said the storm had caused billions, or tens of billions, of dollars of damage in his state alone.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said careful preparations, including unprecedented evacuation orders, had dramatically reduced the loss of life. "It's safe to say that the worst of the storm, up to and including New York and New Jersey, has passed."

More than a million people were evacuated from the Jersey Shore, and a first mandatory evacuation order, covering 370,000 people in New York, had been made by New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg, though it remained unclear what proportion of those had abided by the instruction.

The authorities in states up and down the eastern seaboard will spend months examining the effectiveness of their hurricane-readiness operations, grateful that Irene's surprising lack of ferocity meant any flaws did not lead to major loss of life.

Some 9,000 New Yorkers spent Saturday night in shelters, while many more stayed with friends and relatives. The evacuation order was lifted in the city at 3pm local time yesterday.

Mr Bloomberg said there was major beach erosion in some of the outer boroughs of New York City, as there had been on the popular getaways of Long Island, including Fire Island and the Hamptons. But he said: "The worst is over and we will soon move to restore and return mode."

There were horror stories along the hurricane's path though, and Irene claimed lives as far north as Connecticut, where a man died in a fire apparently started when a downed power cable caught light.

At least two children were among the dead, including an 11-year-old killed by a falling tree in the bedroom of his apartment in Virginia. A 55-year-old surfer and another beach-goer in Florida were killed in heavy waves caused by the storm.

The maximum windspeeds inside Irene stayed well below 100 mph, less than forecast, though the storm stayed locked on the path that the National Hurricane Centre had first predicted almost a week ago.

In Manhattan, roads were flooded in the Lower East Side, home to trendy bars and restaurants, and in the chi-chi boutiques neighbourhood of SoHo. The Hudson river flowed over piers and walls and flooded highways, and a major tunnel into the city remained closed for several hours.

Travel chaos was likely to persist well into today. Airports in the Washington area reopened, but flights had not resumed into and out of New York. The subway system was being inspected for damage before any decision would be made on its reopening. The New York Stock Exchange and other financial markets insisted they would be able to open, using electronic trading.

In all, there was relief that the direst warnings had not come to pass. But, emergency workers and politicians expressed frustration that residents were not heeding evacuation warnings.

WHAT NOW?

Thousands of British holidaymakers stranded in New York and other US cities could face a long wait to get home. Although Hurricane Irene has now been downgraded to a tropical storm, the threat of severe flooding means that delays may continue after it has passed. New York's JFK airport closed on Saturday and remained shut yesterday, creating major disruption on the busiest intercontinental air route in the world, to and from Heathrow. Flights from New York's second airport, Newark, were also cancelled.

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