BRATTLEBORO, Vt. â€” Rippling creeks became deadly deluges. Bridges collapsed into roiling waves. Dry streets turned into fast-rising lakes, closing in around stunned towns that never knew they might be in the path of a tropical storm expected to drench the coast, not the countryside.
But while Irene â€” first a hurricane and then a tropical storm â€” unleashed its initial share of damage along the sandy shores of the Eastern seaboard, by Monday its greatest impact was felt far from the coastline, in places such landlocked Vermont and the bucolic mountains of upstate New York.
â€œIt was a raging torrent,â€ Scott Towle of Brattleboro said of the normally benign Whetstone Brook, which runs beside his house and rose with terrifying speed Sunday when as much as eight inches of rain fell in six hours. â€œYou could hear boulders, trees, everything going down,â€ said Towle, who on Monday joined other locals at a bridge downtown watching the swollen Connecticut River rush past. â€œIt took out the road; it took out a couple of houses; it took out a bridge.â€
â€œIt was roaring,â€ said Richard Hodgdon, whose backyard turned into a lake as the Whetstone Brook filled up. â€œIt came past the house on both sides. It was flowing right down (the street) …When we saw how fast it was rising, we had never seen that before.â€
Hodgdon, his wife and their dog got out as the waters rose to fill their garage and their basement. The heavy furniture on their patio floated away to a neighborâ€™s driveway, next to a red barn that looked on the verge of collapse Monday. A nearby footbridge, which weighs more than a ton, was lifted â€œlike a toothpickâ€ and carried downstream, said Hodgdon, who on Monday looked out at his lawn â€” now a sheet of mud.
â€œItâ€™s hard to believe. Itâ€™s so peaceful today,â€ he said as the sun shone down on the sludge-covered scene.
On the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrinaâ€™s landfall in Louisiana, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate said emergency officials had learned from the disastrous aftermath of that storm.
â€œWe canâ€™t wait to know how bad it is before we get ready,â€ said Fugate, noting the evacuation orders and emergency teamsâ€™ preparations in advance of Irene dramatically contrasted to the after-the-fact scramble that marked FEMAâ€™s Katrina response.
Even so, more than 48 hours after Irene made landfall early Saturday, about 4.5 million people remained without power in Washington, D.C., and 13 states from North Carolina to Maine. The death toll was at least 38, according to The Associated Press, and some rivers had yet to crest, meaning flooding might not be over.
Hundreds remained stranded in communities cut off by washed out roads, including at least 2,500 residents of remote Hatteras Island in North Carolina, where severed utility lines also left them without power. The only access to the island was via a ferry limited to emergency use.
Police in suburban Parsippany, N.J., had to rescue dozens of people who became trapped in two hotels Monday when a nearby lake spilled its banks and sent enough water into the streets and hotel parking lots to swallow vehicles. Evacuees included guests who had fled to the hotels after heeding advice to evacuate their homes in advance of Irene.
There were some signs of a return to normalcy. In New Jersey, Atlantic Cityâ€™s casinos reopened. New York Cityâ€™s subways churned into action in time for the morning commute after an unprecedented pre-emptive shutdown at noon Saturday. Buses returned to service, as did some commuter railroads, and the bell clanged at 9:30 a.m. to mark the opening of trading at the New York Stock Exchange.
For millions of people, though, normalcy was nowhere to be seen.
â€œWe were expecting heavy rains,â€ said Bobbi-Jean Jeun of Clarksville, a rural hamlet near Albany, in upstate New York, AP reported. â€œWe were expecting flooding. We werenâ€™t expecting devastation. It looks like somebody set a bomb off.â€
In a sense, Mother Nature did.
Christopher Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, said the heavy rains from Ireneâ€™s wide bands were â€œtoo much too soon.â€
â€œYouâ€™re having a tremendous amount of run-off, and thatâ€™s all flowing into rivers. The rivers burst through their banks and flow into roads and properties,â€ he said.
Compounding the problem was that soil wet from recent rains couldnâ€™t absorb Ireneâ€™s downpour. Once the soil had reached its saturation point, there wasnâ€™t much that could be done to prevent floods, said Kristen Corbosiero, a professor of tropical meteorology at the University at Albany.
â€œItâ€™s just about getting people out of the way and trying to minimize damage as much as possible.â€
No one warned Valerie Becker, though. Becker, who lives beside the same Brattleboro brook that flooded Hodgdonâ€™s home, looked out her second-story window at about 10:30 a.m. Sunday and saw logs floating across her lawn, along with her grandchildrenâ€™s toys. She rushed around her two-story house grabbing bedding and valuables.