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Many are still experiencing power outages after the storm. LIPA says it could take until next week to restore power.
Tropical Storm Irene put a $1 billion whipping on New York, most of it upstate where heavy rains spawned flash floods that shredded roads, washed out bridges and knocked buildings from their foundations, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.
As power returned and many streets became passable for the first time since the storm hit, residents no longer had to work frantically to survive the next hours. That allowed them time to contemplate the long-term destruction of Irene on their lives, and they relied heavily on each other for support.
Speaking in Prattsville, a Catskills Mountain community that like many others was clobbered by the torrential rains and wind on Sunday, Cuomo said 600 homes were damaged and 150 major highways disrupted. The storm caused $45 million in damage to farms, authorities said, and as of Wednesday morning, about 329,000 customers were still without power statewide.
"We are going to rebuild better than it was before," Cuomo said. "New Yorkers are a tough breed and in our darkest hours is when we shine the brightest."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged victims of Irene to register immediately with FEMA by telephone, online or at a field office like the one set up in Prattsville.
Fugate said registered residents could get checks within days. He said the maximum check from FEMA is $30,000, but many people can expect $2,000 to $3,000 if they qualify for grants. FEMA will also offer low-interest loans.
Early Wednesday, President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in New York, freeing up federal recovery funds for people in the counties of Albany, Delaware, Dutchess, Essex, Greene, Schenectady, Schoharie and Ulster as well as for the state and local governments. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs. Federal funds will also be available for New York city, its northern suburbs and Long Island.
In Prattsville, mud filled the streets, along with what remained of houses, as the smell of decay hung in the air on Wednesday. As much as any of the close-knit hamlets devastated by Irene, this is ground zero, with FEMA choosing Prattsville as its backdrop to announce one of the first major disasters on the Eastern Seaboard declared after the storm.
The sign for Beth's Cafe sagged almost to the muck on the cracked sidewalk, under an American flag hung from a telephone pole. Across the narrow street, the Prattsville Tavern's sign carried a motto reflecting the isolation of the mountain town: "Musta got lost."
Inside, the mud at one point reached nearly to the top of the bar. Outside, mud-caked stools and tables were left to dry out. The door was open with no one around because there is little left to lose.
Doris Plankhorn, 74, will be one of the first people ravaged by Irene who FEMA promises to help.
On Sunday, she found herself on her roof with a rope around her waist, trying to steady herself with her cane. Her neighbor held tight to the other end of the rope as she slowly braved the rushing floodwaters to half-walk, half-swim to safety.
"The water just started pouring out," she said. "I couldn't walk because there was so much water flowing ... we couldn't get out of the house."
Inside, the water reached kitchen countertops. A refrigerator was toppled. Furniture was bunched up as if wadded up and tossed.
"Everybody in town was terrific," she said. "I talked to people I haven't seen in five years. Your friends all help."
"And your enemies, too," added her son, David Post, with a smile. Post, 47, also lived in the house that had stood from the 1880s until Sunday.
"The water was up eight steps inside," Post said. "I grabbed my Bible and started praying."
More bad news came this week.
"The insurance company just told us we(re not covered for flooding," Post said. "'Act of God' they said."
In Windham, Antonia Schreiber stood Tuesday in the 200-year-old Victorian cottage she had transformed into a luxury day spa and marveled that she could see blond floorboards where 24 hours earlier there had been a foot of mud, mangled shrubs and tree limbs left by Irene's floodwaters.
"Friends, loved ones, people I don't even know showed up with trucks, bulldozers and hugs," said the 26-year-old massage therapist, as men and women scraped and mopped around her. "The magnitude of generosity and good will is just overwhelming. I'm numb." It was the same story up and down Main Street in Windham, a ski town high in the Catskill Mountains that was under several feet of brick-red water Sunday night when a stony creek, the Batavia Kill, grew to a raging river fueled by a foot of rain.
There was still no municipal water on Tuesday in Windham and the sewage system was broken.
"The National Guard showed up yesterday but they didn't bring water or anything," said Erica Regan, who looked for a way to help others after finding her flower shop unharmed. "I can't drive a bulldozer, but I can make coffee."
She set up a coffee urn on a folding table beside the white church that houses the community center, and before long, other people started bringing things — baked goods, cases of bottled water, jugs of milk, gas grills, burgers, hot dogs. Members of the Bruderhof religious community on another mountainside, dressed in long blue skirts, grilled chicken for hungry cleanup volunteers.
The destruction was such that the New York State Thruway didn't reopen its last closed stretch until early Wednesday. Both directions from Schenectady to Syracuse are now open.
Back in Prattsville, resident Joel Sutch, 45, briefly interrupted the news conference of speeches by local, state and federal officials that interrupted heavy equipment work by saying the politicians and National Guard soldiers have shown up only for the cameras.
"It just seems to me, they show up when it's convenient," Sutch said.
Cuomo and a local Greene County official countered that the National Guard troops as well as state officials have been in town throughout the ordeal and have been helpful.
They said troops conducted door-to-door surveys on the mountaintop the day the storm hit and brought food and water to residents since.
"That's not the consensus of our town," said Darcy Jaeger-Brand, 39, of Prattsville, said of Sutch's comments. She noted that although more soldiers and police were in town for the news conference than before, "The guard has been here."