WASHINGTON // Hurricane Irene killed at least 14 people and brought flooding and power cuts as it began its final surge yesterday through the north-east US.
Downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached New Jersey and New York, the most heavily populated areas in its path, Irene's 105kph winds were less ferocious than feared.
Emirates and Etihad Airways were expected to resume partial service between the UAE and New York today. Six Emirates flights between Dubai and New York were cancelled yesterday.
While the worst of Irene may be over, it left a trail of destruction and three million homes without electricity. Two nuclear reactors, one in New Jersey and one at Calvert Hill in Maryland, were shut down. Officials at Calvert Hill said there was no threat of a meltdown and the reactor had been taken safely offline after the storm tore a large piece of aluminium from one of the buildings. The reactor in New Jersey was shut down as a precaution.
Irene made landfall in North Carolina on Saturday morning as a category-one hurricane, the most moderate strength with winds of about 150kph. But rather than go straight up the coast, the storm was pushed back out to sea and made landfall again in New Jersey early yesterday.
Inland, in areas such as Washington, this meant residents avoided the worst of the storm even though the capital did not go unscathed.
About half a million Washington-area residents were without power when they woke up yesterday, as Irene - the first hurricane to hit the capital in more than 50 years - downed trees and power lines.
A night of driving rain also caused flooding inside DC and moderate water damage as old buildings strained under the pressure.
Josie Barletta, 47, whose apartment is on the top floor of a building in the central Logan Circle neighbourhood, spent a night putting buckets under leaks that appeared in her ceiling as rainwater flooded the roof.
"I suppose it could have been a lot worse," said Ms Barletta.
She said that while she had plenty of provisions and had bought a torch, she never expected the hurricane to be as bad as it had been advertised.
"I think the media hyped this up way too much."
That observation was common, as a storm generally described as a "monster" and "historic" by cable networks who switched to 24-hour coverage, failed to deliver the doomsday scenarios many had presented their viewers.
Nevertheless, precaution was clearly the watchword for US authorities, mindful of the experience of Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,800 people in 2005 along the Gulf Coast.
As many as two million people had been ordered to leave their homes because of Irene and tens of thousands were still in shelters yesterday.
Officials defended the precautionary measures that the New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who declared a state of emergency on Thursday, credited with saving lives.
"We evacuated over a million people from the New Jersey shore in 24 hours in an orderly fashion without big traffic jams and without huge hassles," Mr Christie said yesterday. "If we had not done that, I think you would have seen significant loss of life on the shore."
Mr Christie also warned residents that the crisis wasn't over and that flooding would continue to be a concern for the next few days. "The message I want to get to New Jerseyans is: do not leave your homes."
Michael Bloomberg, New York's mayor, urged the 8.1 million New Yorkers to take shelter as by midday yesterday the city came under the eye of the storm and tornado warnings were issued for the five boroughs.
New York's public transport system has been closed since noon on Saturday, and yesterday all airports from Baltimore, Maryland, to Boston were closed and not expected to open until late yesterday or Monday. More than 10,000 flights have so far been cancelled, and Amtrak, America's railway operator, cancelled all train services in the northeastern corridor.
Of the 14 reported deaths, six were in North Carolina, four in Virginia, and one each in New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida and Maryland.
One man suffered a heart attack as he boarded up his house in North Carolina. An 11-year-old boy in Virginia was killed when a tree crashed through his roof, and a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina died in a car crash resulting from downed traffic lights. A Maryland woman was killed when a chimney fell on her house, and in Florida a surfer and another beachgoer were killed by heavy waves.
Irene was the first hurricane to hit the mainland US since Hurricane Ike made landfall in 2008, and 2011 has been the most extreme for weather in US history, with US$35 billion (Dh128.45bn) in losses so far from floods, tornadoes and heatwaves.
Using the benchmark of $1 billion in damage, the study by the National Climactic Data Centre said major floods, drought, tornadoes and a blizzard had already pushed the number of such disasters to nine this year before Irene.
When Irene roared up the US east coast, causing untold billions in damage, this was the 10th such event, overtaking the previous record set in 2008.