KILLINGTON, Vt. – Swollen rivers began falling Wednesday in much of the Northeast, easing the flooding that paralyzed parts of the region after Hurricane Irene and allowing emergency crews to reach all but one of the Vermont towns that had been cut off by floodwaters.
Receding water revealed more damage to homes, farms and businesses across the flood-scarred landscape. Repair estimates indicated that the storm would almost certainly rank among the nation's costliest natural disasters, despite packing a lighter punch than initially feared.
Of the 11 towns that had been cut off from the outside world, all except tiny Wardsboro had been reached by rescuers, and authorities were hoping to reach it shortly. National Guard helicopters continued to ferry supplies to mountain communities that had no electricity, no telephone service and limited transportation in or out.
Eight helicopters from the Illinois National Guard were expected to arrive Wednesday with food, blankets, tarps and drinking water.
At Killington Elementary School, residents came for a free hot dog and corn-on-the-cob. Jason and Angela Heaslip picked up a bag filled with peanut butter, cereal and toilet paper for their three children and three others who are visiting from Long Island.
"Right now, they're getting little portions because we're trying to make the food last," said Jason Heaslip, who only has a dollar in his bank account because the storm has kept him from getting paid by the resort where he works.
Don Fielder, a house painter in Gaysville, said the White River roared through his house, tearing the first floor off the foundation and filling a bathroom tub with mud. He was upbeat as he showed a visitor the damage, but said he's reluctant to go into town for fear he will cry when people ask about the home he built himself 16 years ago.
Other losses include a 1957 Baldwin piano and a collection of 300 Beanie Babies amassed by his daughter, who does not live with him but has a bedroom at his house.
"I bet that's in the river," he said.
If Irene's death toll stands, it would be comparable to 1999's Hurricane Floyd, which also struck North Carolina and charged up the East Coast into New England, causing most of its 57 deaths by inland drowning. At the time, it was the deadliest U.S. hurricane in nearly 40 years but was later dwarfed by the 1,800 deaths caused by Katrina in 2005.
An estimate released immediately after Irene by the Kinetic Analysis Corp., a consulting firm that uses computer models to estimate storm losses, put the damage at $7.2 billion in eight states and Washington, D.C.
That would eclipse damage from Hurricane Bob, which caused $1 billion in damage in New England in 1991 or the equivalent of about $1.7 billion today, and Hurricane Gloria, which swept through the region in 1985 and left $900 million, or the equivalent of $1.9 billion today, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Even as rivers finally stopped rising in Vermont, New Jersey, and Connecticut, many communities and farm areas remained flooded, and officials said complete damage estimates were nowhere in sight.
Some New Jersey towns resembled large, soggy yard sales as residents dragged flood-damaged belongings out onto lawns and into streets still muddied with floodwaters.
Large sections of Wallington, N.J. remained underwater after a cruel one-two punch: The Passaic River flooded the heart-shaped hamlet Sunday and then receded, only to rise again late Tuesday, forcing a new round of evacuations.
"Sunday morning, the water was only up to here," said Kevin O'Reilly, gesturing to where his front lawn used to meet the sidewalk. "My daughter and I took a walk around the block. We figured everything would be fine."
Only hours later, waves were bouncing off the house, and the basement windows were shattered.
"It sounded like Niagara Falls," O'Reilly said. "It just filled up immediately, and this is what we've been dealing with since then."
The town is accustomed to moderate flooding because sits atop a network of underground streams that form a water table already saturated by record August rainfall.
Neighbors had started mucking out flooded basements and piling water-logged furniture and ruined possessions on the sidewalks when the river rose again. The town rushed to place garbage bins on higher ground so debris wouldn't be floating in the high water.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimated the damage to his state alone at $1 billion during a visit to Prattsville, a Catskills community where 600 homes were damaged by heavy rains and floods that also shredded roads and washed out bridges.
"Upstate New York paid a terrible, terrible price for this storm," Cuomo said.
Downstream from Vermont's devastating floods, the Connecticut River hit levels not seen in 24 years, but Middletown Mayor Sebastian Giuliano said the situation was not much worse than annual spring floods caused by snowmelt.
In Simsbury, Conn., several farm fields were flooded along the Farmington River. Pumpkins and other produce could be seen floating away.
"Farmers lost a good amount of crops," said First Selectwoman Mary Glassman.
After floods in 1955, New England states installed flood-control dams and basins that helped prevent a catastrophe along the lower Connecticut River, said Denise Ruzicka, director of inland water resources for Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Power outages persisted across the region, with some of the largest in Connecticut, where more than 360,000 homes and businesses were still in the dark, and Virginia, where 242,000 customers had no lights.
In the ski resort town of Killington, Vt., residents were volunteering to use their lawn tractors to help remove mud and debris. People with electricity were letting neighbors without water use their showers. One question was whether the camaraderie would wear thin before things returned to normal.
Karen Dalury, who did not have power at her home, said she had been eating vegetables from her garden and storing some in a neighbor's freezer.
"For now it's fun," she said, "but who knows how long it's going to continue."
In North Carolina, where Irene blew ashore along the Outer Banks on Saturday before heading for New York and New England, Gov. Beverly Perdue said the hurricane destroyed more than 1,100 homes and caused at least $70 million in damage.
With Irene gone, scientists turned their attention to the open Atlantic Ocean, where Tropical Storm Katia was gaining strength and forecast to become a hurricane by early next week. Meteorologists said it was too soon to determine where it might go.