Hurricane Irene: Barack Obama warns effects will be 'felt for some time'
Barack Obama has warned that the effects of Hurricane Irene will be "felt for some time", even after New York was spared the widespread damage that had been feared.
Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm yesterday as its winds weakened. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, said the city had “dodged the bullet”.
But Mr Obama urged those in the storm's path to stay vigilant and warned that power outages and floods would continue to threaten communities on the East Coast.
"This is not over," the US president said in a statement from the Rose Garden.
He urged the public to heed the warnings of local officials in the coming days, and said his administration would continue working with cities and states to ensure they were prepared to respond.
"The impacts of this storm will be felt for some time. And the recovery effort will last for weeks or longer," said Mr Obama, flanked by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate.
Although the city of New York escaped relatively unscathed, at least 19 people were killed as Hurricane Irene barrelled up the eastern seaboard over the weekend, and more fatalities were expected to be confirmed.
An 11-year-old boy died when a tree fell through the roof of his house in North Carolina. A woman in Maryland was crushed by her chimney when it fell through the ceiling of her home.
A surfer succumbed to the 10-foot waves he had hoped to enjoy in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, while a woman in New Jersey drowned in her car after becoming stuck on a flooded road.
An estimated four million homes and businesses across the region were left without power, as 80mph winds tore into overhead cables.
Further north up the coast, the states of New England suffered as the storm reached them later in the day. Captain Ray Keefe, from the Vermont state police, said “epic” flooding had placed towns in the south of the state under several feet of water. Canadian authorities were preparing for it to arrive on Sunday night, with flooding expected in Quebec.
The Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, estimated that the cost of damage to buildings and infrastructure was in the "billions of dollars, if not the tens of billions of dollars".
By the time it reached New York, however, Irene had partially collapsed.
Downgraded to a 60mph tropical storm, the city's first since 1893, it brought none of the feared carnage to Manhattan.
New Yorkers who had stockpiled food and water in anticipation of days stuck inside were out walking their dogs and buying newspapers by 9am. By 10, sunshine begun breaking through the clouds.
Millions had gone to bed amid a chilling final message from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "The edge of the hurricane is finally upon us," he told a late-night press conference. "The time to leave has passed." A total of 64 people were rescued from their homes due to floods, most in the outer boroughs. In Queens, workers in boats were chasing floating bungalows, trying to make sure no one was inside.
A surge at 8am's high tide brought the East River splashing over its barriers. There was also flooding at Battery Park, where millions of tourists catch ferries to the Statue of Liberty each year.
Some streets also suffered uprootings. Marty Markowitz, the borough president of Brooklyn, said: "We lost a lot of beautiful trees today".
The Hudson River, which separates the west of Manhattan from New Jersey, also flooded briefly, bringing six inches of water to the well-heeled streets of the West Village.
But as in many other central neighbourhoods, the drama extended only to an NYPD cop using his car tannoy to instruct a father to stop his young son sloshing about in wellington boots "right now".
At a press conference around lunchtime, Barack Obama's homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, sternly told those casually wandering the streets that they were being hasty.
"Our number one message for people and families up and down the eastern seaboard is that we are not out of the woods yet," Miss Napolitano said.
"Hazards still persist".
There was far more serious flooding in Westchester County, further north up New York state. An elderly man had to be rescued in Elmsford, while residents of Rye suffered water up to their waists.
But across New York City, where Mr Bloomberg was criticised for underestimating the severity of blizzards after Christmas, thousands of residents had the same word on the tip of their tongues.
"Over-reaction," said Shayla Sweatt, a 33-year-old events planner originally from Texas, who had refused to evacuate Red Hook, an exposed "Zone A" coastal area whose residents were told to leave.
"It's not as bad as we they said it would be," said John Harris, 37, who defied an evacuation order and stayed at home in the Rockaways.
The entire public transport system was shut down, and is likely to remain out of action today.
Residents of Quogue, in Long Island, who refused evacuate were even ordered by firemen going door-to-door on Saturday night to write their social security numbers on their arms in permanent marker, in case their bodies needed to be identified later on.
Roving reporters for 24-hour TV news channels looked increasingly ridiculous as the morning went on and locals began wandering into the background of their breathless reports of extreme conditions.
"Where I'm from, we know what strong hurricanes are like," said Miss Sweatt.
"We used to take in refugees at our house. Sometimes New Yorkers lose their heads." As they glanced southwards at what might have been, however, many were glad to have followed Barack Obama's advice. "We all hope for the best and *prepare for the worst," he had said.