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Flooding From Irene Damages Roads, Strands Towns

Vermont's National Guard began mobilizing helicopters and heavy equipment Tuesday to airlift food, drinking water and other essentials to about a dozen towns cut off by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Days after the massive storm cut a treacherous swath across 11 states, hundreds of roads and scores of bridges remained impassable in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. In some cases, those roads and bridges were the sole access routes in and out of rural or coastal communities.

Emergency Management spokesman Mark Bosma said washed-out roads and downed bridges in Vermont have made it necessary to use helicopters to reach towns such as Cavendish, Hancock, Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Strafford and Stratton.

We have a dozen communities that are cut off. We hope to reach them today at least by SUV so we can deliver food and water.

The state also planned to use heavy-duty vehicles to get supplies into other places where roads may be passable. The supplies arrived at National Guard headquarters in Colchester early Tuesday in a convoy of 30 trucks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We have a dozen communities that are cut off," said Sue Minter, deputy secretary for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. "We hope to reach them today at least by SUV so we can deliver food and water."

Irene has been blamed for at least 40 deaths. More than 2.5 million people from North Carolina to Maine were still without electricity Tuesday, three days after the storm churned up the Eastern Seaboard.

Airlines said it would be days before the thousands of passengers stranded by Irene find their way home. Amtrak service was still out Tuesday between Philadelphia and New York, one of the most heavily traveled parts of the nation's passenger rail system. Some Amtrak trains between New York City and Boston and between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Commuter train service between New Jersey and New York City resumed Tuesday, except for one line that was still dealing with flooding.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said Irene triggered the worst flooding the state has seen in a century as the storm moved north into Canada. At least 260 roads were impassable, and 30 bridges were either down or deemed unsafe.

"We have very expensive and significant damage throughout the state," Minter said. She added that temporary bridges would be installed over waterways until the structures could be either repaired or rebuilt.

"We always had that truism that said, `Yup, yah can't get there from here.' In fact, that's come to pass down here," said Gloria Cristelli, town clerk in Newfane, Vt. "There are certain pockets where you can't get there from here, at least not by a car."

Irene dumped up to 11 inches of rain in some places in Vermont, turning placid mountain streams into roaring brown torrents that smashed buildings and ripped homes from their foundations. At least three people died in the state.

High winds and heavy rain also flooded whole valleys in parts of upstate New York, sweeping away homes and bridges and cutting off access to at least three towns.

Dozens of major highways, including sections of interstates 87 and 90, were closed to traffic. Some bridges had simply given way — including a 156-year-old wooden covered bridge across Schoharie Creek in Blenheim, N.Y.

In North Carolina, where some 1,000 people were still in emergency shelters awaiting word on their homes, officials were trying to get a handle on the extent of the damage to Highway 12. The road links the northern and southern portion of the exposed Outer Banks, the chain of barrier islands that bore the brunt of the storm.

"It's going to take time to fix it and it's going to cost money," said Greer Beaty, a spokesperson with the state's Department of Transportation.

"In some locations, we are still working with utilities to move power lines off the road," she said, adding that the agency aims to "gather all our data and make the right decision about how to procede, not necessarily the fastest decision."

Susan Paul owns The Community Store on remote Ocracoke Island, which is accessible only by boat. She said she chose to ride out the storm on the island, rather than flee to the mainland.

"We fortunately have ferry routes that run to the mainland, and they are re-starting today to let people back to their homes," Paul said.

She noted that Highway 12 was closed for nearly a month in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel roared through. But "in 2003, it was only one spot that was washed out," she said. "This time it's five, so we don't really know how long it will be."

Irene caused about $7 billion in damage, according an estimate from the Kinetic Analysis Corporation, which advises reinsurers and government policymakers. But the torrential flooding in places such as Vermont may add $1 billion to $2 billion in costs, according to Kinetic CEO Jan Vermeiren.

He said the company uses computer modeling in compiling damage estimates, and that those models have proven to be "in the ballpark of what it comes out to be in the end."

Vermeiren estimated that insured losses will be less than $3 billion. He said that's because hardly any private insurers cover flood damage.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.