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updated: 8/30/2011 2:07 PM

Airlifts take food, water to cut-off Vermont towns

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  • Members of the Quinn family, right, embrace outside their home while members of the New York National Guard use heavy equipment to clear debris from a stream that destroyed their family printing business in Middleburgh, N.Y., Tuesday.

      Members of the Quinn family, right, embrace outside their home while members of the New York National Guard use heavy equipment to clear debris from a stream that destroyed their family printing business in Middleburgh, N.Y., Tuesday.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- National Guard helicopters began taking food and water Tuesday to about a dozen Vermont towns cut off by flooding from the rainy remnants of Hurricane Irene in a deluge that took inland areas of New England and upstate New York by surprise with its ferocity.

Vermont Emergency Management spokesman Mark Bosma said the helicopters would bring relief to people in towns where roads and bridges were washed out, including Cavendish, Hancock, Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Strafford and Stratton.

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Officials also used heavy-duty National Guard vehicles to reach communities where roads may be passable.

In a disaster that caught many communities off guard, Irene dumped up to 11 inches of rain on Vermont over the weekend and turned placid mountain streams into roaring brown torrents that smashed buildings and ripped homes from their foundations. At least three people died in Vermont.

Small towns in upstate New York -- especially in the Catskills and the Adirondacks -- were also besieged by floodwaters.

All together, the storm has been blamed for more than 40 deaths in 11 states. More than 2.5 million people from North Carolina to Maine were still without electricity Tuesday, three days after the hurricane churned up the Eastern Seaboard.

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 landlocked Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin called it the worst flooding in a century.

Approximately 260 roads in Vermont were closed because of storm damage, along with about 30 highway bridges. The floodwaters took giant bites out of the asphalt in some places.

"We always had that truism that said, `Yup, yah can't get there from here.' In fact, that's come to pass down here," said Newfane, Vt., Town Clerk Gloria Cristelli. "There are certain pockets where you can't get there from here, at least not by a car."

Relief supplies arrived at Vermont's National Guard headquarters early Tuesday in a convoy of 30 trucks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

When Irene unleashed its wrath on Newfane, Martin and Sue Saylor were among the lucky ones. All they lost was the road to their hillside home, and their utilities.

Rivers of rainwater coursed down their hill. Just below their home deep in the woods, the Rock River rose up out of its banks, too, claiming another road.

"Stranded, nowhere to go," said Martin Saylor, 57, standing by the Rock River on Monday, waiting for his brother to bring in supplies. "Don't want to leave my house because I don't know who's going to break in or whatever. I just don't know what to do."

Vermont emergency officials and the National Weather Service warned before the storm about the potential for heavy rain and flooding. On Thursday, the governor urged people to prepare for heavy rain, high winds and possible lengthy power outages. He recommended stocking up on food, water and other supplies.

On Monday, Shumlin defended his state's decision not to undertake more extensive evacuations before the storm arrived.

"What are you going to do, evacuate the entire state of Vermont?" the governor asked. He added: "You can see one community that looks like it didn't get hit at all, and two miles down the road a community that is totally devastated. And obviously there's no one that can predict which community, where, why or how."

In North Carolina, where Irene blew ashore along the Outer Banks on Saturday before heading for New York and New England, 1,000 people were still in emergency shelters, awaiting word on their homes.

Airlines said it would be days before the thousands of passengers stranded by Irene find their way home. Amtrak service was still out Tuesday between Philadelphia and New York, one of the most heavily traveled parts of the nation's passenger rail system. Some Amtrak trains between New York City and Boston and between Philadelphia and Washington.

Commuter train service between New Jersey and New York City resumed Tuesday, except for one line that was still dealing with flooding.

Throughout the region, hundreds of roads were impassable because of flooding or fallen trees, and some bridges had simply given way, including a 156-year-old hand-hewn, wooden covered bridge across Schoharie Creek in Blenheim, N.Y. At least three towns in New York remained cut off by flooded roads and bridges.

Early estimates put Irene's damage at $7 billion to $10 billion, much smaller than the impact of monster storms such as Hurricane Katrina, which did more than $100 billion in damage. Irene's effects are small compared with the overall U.S. economy, which produces about $14 trillion worth of goods and services every year.

In Newfane (pop. 1,710), the storm's effects were staggering: About 150 people were unable to drive cars to their homes, 30 of them effectively stranded in theirs. Seven bridges were washed out. Two homes were knocked from their foundations by surging floodwaters. And one 19th-century grist mill smashed into kindling wood.

"I need a shower," said Sue Saylor. "I need water. I need electricity. It's rough."

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