Hurricane Irene's late summer trip Aug. 27-30 along the East Coast from the Carolinas up to Manhattan and through New England was anything but restful for people and infrastructure in the storm's path.
The hurricane had diminished to tropical storm status as it churned up the coast, turned inland and headed to Canada. But it brought enough wind and rain to generate record flooding in some areas; it chewed up infrastructure and caused damage of at least $7 billion and possibly as much as $10 billion, according to estimates.
Irene will be remembered for mostly bypassing the usual storm-vulnerable states in the South and inflicting surprising damage via river flooding on Vermont and other states. It will also be remembered as one of the costliest hurricanes as far as power lines are concerned.
David Vallee, hydrologist in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast River Forecast Center, in Taunton, Mass., said the storm poured down between five and 15 inches of rain in the area from northern New Jersey through the Hudson and Connecticut River valleys, he says.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate said the agency does not have estimates yet of the damage cost.
FEMA has been trying to conserve the balance in its Disaster Relief Fund, so it can cover some of the expected costs of Irene. FEMA will continue to fund assistance for individuals, emergency costs and cleanup for pre-Irene disasters this year (such as Joplin, Mo.). But it has postponed funding projects for which localities have not yet sought FEMA funding approval. "Those projects are still eligible," Fugate said, "But we won't be able to start new permanent work such as permanent construction repairing damages from those tornados.
Fugate said the Disaster Relief Fund was at about $900 million earlier this week.
House Appropriations Committee Republican leaders said on Aug. 27 that the disaster fund was down to $792 million, a level that they termed "dangerously low." The 2011 federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.
The House passed a Dept. of Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal 2012 that included an additional $1 billion for 2011 for the Disaster Relief Fund. But the Senate has yet to act. FEMA is part of the department.
Knockout Power Punch
More than 20,0000 utility workers raced to restore power to the 3.3 million East Coast customers still without electricity on Aug. 30 after Irene took out hundreds of miles of distribution lines and poles.
Dozens of utility personnel were performing a task almost as crucial: examining what happened to the electrical systems and determining how such damage can be prevented, says Don Mundy, senior vice president of the management consulting division of Overland Park, Kan.-based Black & Veatch.
"They will learn from that experience," he says, and most will make some changes in the way they operate or the way their system is designed.
In light of the widespread devastation, some changes are inevitable. Hurricane Irene left 7.7 million customers without power in 14 states and the District of Columbia at the height of the storm. Utilities struggled to restore power in some areas because of the high number affected.
“Irene delivered a knockout punch and left a trail of destroyed electrical infrastructure from North Carolina all the way to Maine," said Tom Kuhn, president of Edison Electric Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based association of investor-owned utilities.
In terms of damage and customers left without electricity, Irene easily rivals earlier storms such as Isabel, Floyd and Gloria, Kuhn says.
"Damage was not catastrophic, but it was widespread," David Botkins, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power, said on Aug. 29.
Most of the damage was limited to distribution lines and poles, though some transmission lines were affected. Baltimore Gas & Electric reported 400 poles and 5,000 wires on its distribution system were down, National Grid in New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts reported 20 transmission lines were down, and Dominion reported 27 transmission lines down in North Carolina and Virginia.
No major damage was reported at East Coast powerplants, but Constellation Energy's Calvert Cliffs nuclear Unit No. 1 on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland was shut down after a piece of aluminum siding struck a transformer. All nuclear plants in the path of the storm continued operating or safely shut down in advance of the storm, according to reports from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"The number of outages is unprecedented, with the size and intensity of the storm and the fact that it was slow moving accounting for the widespread outages," said Richard Sullivan Jr., energy and environmental affairs secretary for Massachusetts, said in a statement.
Flooding prevented some utilities in New England from reaching downed power lines and customers, while others in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey had to dry out flooded substations and feeder lines before putting them back on line. Most customers were expected to have their lights back on by the weekend.
In Vermont, Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) said restoration could take weeks. The state suffered some of the greatest wreckage. Entire towns were without power.