Part of Route 112 in Halifax, Vt., is washed away where the Deerfield River… (Matthew Cavanaugh, Getty…)
Eastern states took slow but steady steps toward normalcy Wednesday, coping amid rescue and cleanup efforts after Hurricane Irene turned parts of the rural Northeast into flooded disaster areas.
Officials in Vermont continued to airlift supplies — including food, water, medicine and diapers — to people cut off by flooded streams and rivers. But roads across the state were open to emergency vehicles, a step up from Tuesday when at least 13 communities were isolated, according to the Vermont Emergency Operations Center.
"There's a lot of damage and it's taking a long time to get through," Ben Truman, a Vermont public information officer, said by telephone. "People are being phenomenal about it.... It is one of these trite things, but Vermonters know how to step up when they need to, neighbor helping neighbor. We're moving heaven and Earth to get supplies to the people."
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Vermont's situation was perhaps the most complicated in the wake of Irene, which reached the United States on Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane and moved up the East Coast into New England as a tropical storm. During its northern trek, Irene dumped about a foot of rain on some areas, pushing rivers to record flood levels in at least 10 states, including New York, New Jersey and Vermont, according to the U.S. Geological Service website.
At least 44 deaths have been reported in 13 states and more than 1.5 million people remained without electricity Wednesday. Damage was expected to total in the tens of billions of dollars.
Extensive flooding also caused major damage in upstate New York and in New Jersey, visited by federal emergency officials Wednesday.
"We're not here for the short run, we're here for the long haul," said Craig Fugate, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, speaking in upstate New York, where he, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano thanked the first responders.
"It is important you are here," Cuomo told the Cabinet officials. After exhaustive preparations and evacuation in anticipation of the hurricane, New York City and Long Island escaped severe damage. But "there is an exactly opposite reality in upstate New York, where people paid a terrible, terrible price for this storm," Cuomo said.
New York state sustained $1 billion in damage with 600 homes destroyed, six towns flooded, portions of 150 major highways broken and 140,000 acres of farmland damaged, he said. "Sometimes the bottom line is the bottom line. We need help on the economics," Cuomo told the officials.
Electricity has been restored to about 80% of the New York areas hit by Irene, leaving an estimated 287,000 people without power, the governor's office said. Most utilities were hoping to have full restoration by midnight Friday.
Early Wednesday, President Obama declared a major disaster in New York, freeing up federal recovery funds for people in eight counties. Assistance includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs, according to the White House. Obama also declared a major disaster in North Carolina.
The president is scheduled to tour hard-hit Paterson, N.J., on Sunday. In preparation, Obama on Wednesday night declared a major disaster for New Jersey's Bergen, Essex, Morris, Passaic and Somerset counties.
He can expect to hear more pleas for federal funds, already a contentious issue between the White House and Republicans. Top congressional Republicans have argued that any new money for FEMA efforts should be offset by budget cuts elsewhere.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, made it clear that he was having nothing to do with any partisan federal fight that could hurt his state.
"We don't have time to wait for folks in Congress to figure how they want to offset this stuff with budget cuts," Christie said when the Cabinet officials visited his state. "We need the support now, here in New Jersey, and that's not a Republican or Democratic issue."
Christie said no one worried about budget cuts when it came to helping the Midwest and South, hit by tornadoes and floods last spring, and he had no intention of hearing about the need for cuts now.
PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene