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New flood dangers as East Coast reels from Irene

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NEWFANE, Vt. » As emergency airlift operations brought ready-to-eat meals and water to Vermont residents left isolated and desperate, states along the Eastern Seaboard continued to be battered by the after effects of Irene, the destructive hurricane turned tropical storm.

Dangerously damaged infrastructure, 2.5 million people without power and thousands of water-logged homes and businesses continued to overshadow the lives of residents and officials from North Carolina through New England, where the storm has been blamed for at least 44 deaths in 13 states.

But new dangers developed in New Jersey and Connecticut, where once benign rivers rose menacingly high. New Jersey ordered new evacuations.

The Passaic River in northeastern New Jersey crested Tuesday — causing extensive flooding along its course and forcing a round of evacuations and rescues in Paterson, the state’s third-largest city.

"Been in Paterson all my life, I’m 62 years old, and I’ve never seen anything like this," said resident Gloria Moses as she gathered with others at the edge of what used to be a network of streets, now covered by a lake.

Flooding continued to besiege Paterson, Little Falls and Montville Township on Wednesday morning, even after the state’s rain-swollen rivers crested and slowly receded.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, after touring Wayne, through which the Passaic also flows, said Tuesday night he saw "just extraordinary despair."

He said inland flooding would probably continue another 48 hours and additional shelters were still being opened.

In Connecticut, the Connecticut River was 23 feet above flood stage on Tuesday afternoon and still rising.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy toured hard-hit coastal areas — including a peninsula in Fairfield that was lined with heavily damaged homes on Long Island Sound.

Communities on the East Coast continued recovery efforts Tuesday, with people moving out of emergency shelters in western Massachusetts, farmers in New York’s battered Schoharie Valley assessing crop losses and an insurance agent in Pawtucket, R.I., fielding dozens of calls from customers making damage claims.

"The majority of the claims are trees down," said Melanie Loiselle-Mongeon. "Trees on houses, on fences, on decks, on cars."

In Vermont, officials focused on providing basic necessities to residents who in many cases still have no power, no telephone service and no way to get in or out of their towns.

On Tuesday night, 11 towns — Cavendish, Granville, Hancock, Killington, Mendon, Marlboro, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Stockbridge, Strafford and Wardsboro — were cut off from the outside.

But by Wednesday morning, all but one of the communities — Wardsboro– had been reached by ground crews, emergency management officials said.

And it’s hoped that Wardsboro can be reached Wednesday morning, said Emergency Management spokesman Robert Stirewalt

He said the crude roads are not for general use and are only passable by emergency vehicles.

Vermont National Guard choppers made three drops in Killington-Mendon, Pittsfield and Rochester Tuesday while 10 other towns received truck deliveries of food, blankets, tarps and water.

Eight Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters from the Illinois National Guard are expected to arrive Wednesday to bolster the number of flights.

Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate told CBS’s "The Early Show" a drawdown in assistance funds will have no negative impact on the agency’s efforts to help stricken Eastern Seaboard states. The agency has less than $800 million left in its disaster coffers.

"We’re going to do what we’re supposed to do," he said in the interview Wednesday morning.

"We start with lifesaving and look at the critical needs, the power outages and recovery. We are still in very much a rescue operation. Yesterday, still, rescue operations were going on here in New York."

Fugate said FEMA’s current focus is on Hurricane Irene recovery efforts and said it must also gird for any new disasters.

"We don’t know what’s coming down the line," he said.

Up to 11 inches of rain triggered the deluges, which knocked houses off their foundations, destroyed covered bridges and caused earthquake-style damage to infrastructure all over the state. Three people were killed and a fourth is still missing.

About 260 roads in Vermont were closed because of storm damage, along with about 30 highway bridges. Only a handful of them have been reopened.

Vermont Deputy Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said the infrastructure damage was in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Residents trapped in inaccessible communities used cellphones and computers to reach out to others.

"As soon as we can get help, we need help," resident Liam McKinley said by cellphone from a mountain above flood-stricken Rochester on Tuesday. He said the town’s restaurants and a supermarket were giving food away rather than let it spoil, and townspeople were helping each other.

"We’ve been fine so far. The worst part is not being able to communicate with the rest of the state and know when people are coming in," McKinley said.

Wendy Pratt, another of the few townspeople able to communicate with the outside world, posted an update on Facebook using a generator and a satellite Internet connection. She sketched a picture of both devastation and New England neighborliness.

"People have lost their homes, their belongings, businesses … the cemetery was flooded and caskets were lost down the river. So many areas of complete devastation," Pratt wrote. "In town there is no cell service or internet service – all phones in town are out. We had a big town meeting at the church at 4 this afternoon to get any updates."

In Woodstock, Vt., Michael Ricci spent the day clearing debris from his backyard along the Ottauquechee River. What had been a meticulously mowed, sloping grass lawn and gorgeous flower beds was now a muddy expanse littered with debris, including wooden boards, propane tanks and a deer hunting target.

"The things we saw go down the river were just incredible," Ricci said. "Sheds, picnic tables, propane tanks, furnaces, refrigerators. We weren’t prepared for that. We had prepared for wind and what we ended up with was more water than I could possibly, possibly have imagined." He said the water in his yard was almost up to the house, or about 15 to 20 feet above normal.

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