US counts the cost of hurricane's brutal trail of destruction

The death toll is 13 and the cost will run into tens of billions of dollars, but the storm was not as severe as many had feared

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Residents of the north-eastern United States are counting the cost of a rare hurricane that swept through some of the country's most densely-populated cities, causing extensive flooding but sparing the region much of the damage that had been feared.

The death toll from Hurricane Irene stood at 18 last night and flood warnings remained in place in many areas, while officials warned it would take days for normal life to resume in major metropolitan centres such as New York, where the mass transport system had been shut down completely for the first time due to weather.

North Carolina on Saturday and New Jersey yesterday bore the brunt of the hurricane, which had weakened to a tropical storm by the time it hit New York mid-morning and was petering out as it headed through New England towards the Canadian border. Dozens of families had to be helped from their flooded homes, and Irene knocked out power to more than 4 million homes and businesses, the result mainly of downed power lines.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said the storm had caused billions, or tens of billions, of dollars of damage. More than 100 dams in the state were being monitored for spills from high water, with residents being evacuated from one downstream town called High Bridge.

More than a million people had evacuated the Jersey Shore in the run-up to Irene, and a first mandatory evacuation order covering 370,000 people in New York had also been made by the city's mayor Michael Bloomberg – though it remained unclear what proportion of those had abided by the instruction. The authorities in states up and down the Eastern seaboard will spend the next weeks and months examining the effectiveness of their hurricane readiness operations.

Barack Obama paid tribute to the "exemplary effort" of rescuers and government agencies, but he warned that dangers still lurked in the storm's aftermath. Heavy rains continue to swell rivers near their source, and these could eventually break their banks downstream in the coming days. "I want people to understand this is not over," the President said. "Response and recovery efforts will be an ongoing operation."

Deep into hurricane season, the emergence of Irene was hardly remarkable, but its journey through the north-eastern states made it one of very few such storms in the past 200 years. The maximum windspeeds inside Irene stayed well below 100mph, less than initially forecast, though the storm stayed locked on the path that the National Hurricane Centre had predicted almost a week ago.

In Manhattan, roads were underwater in the Lower East Side, home to trendy bars and restaurants, and in the chi-chi boutiques neighbourhood of SoHo. The Hudson river flowed over piers and walls and flooded highways, and a major tunnel into the city remained closed for several hours after Irene had passed, but the relatively minor storm surge spared the electricity grid and limited flood damage to the subway system, which had been shut completely.

Mayor Bloomberg defended his decision to order an unprecedented evacuation of low-lying areas of the city and several of its islands. "We weren't willing to risk the life of a single New Yorker," he said.

Travel chaos was likely to persist well into today, Mr Bloomberg warned. Airports in the Washington area were open by lunchtime, with more northerly hubs restarting departures later in the day. Police used helicopters to fly subway engineers to far-flung stations to inspect for damage, so a decision on reopening the system could be made as quickly as possible.

In all, though, there was relief that some of the direst warnings had not come to pass. There were horror stories along the hurricane's path, though, and Irene claimed lives as far north as Connecticut, where a man died in a fire apparently started when a downed power cable caught light. At least two children were among the dead, including an 11-year-old killed by a falling tree in the bedroom of his apartment in Virginia. A woman in New York state was found drowned in her submerged car, eight hours after she made a call for help to emergency services.

Bad - but not like 1938

New Jersey state governor Chris Christie warned yesterday that the damage caused by Irene could run into billions, if not tens of billions of dollars.

But as East Coasters begin cleaning up today while Irene continues her journey north, those old enough to remember the hurricanes of 1938 will be counting their blessings.

Between 680 and 800 people died when the Category 3 storm made landfall on 21 September, forever changing the landscape of Long Island, which bore the initial weight of the storm. Estimates put the damage at more than $300m, which at today's prices would be worth around $45bn (£27bn).

In the days before meteorologists were cute enough to give deadly storms a name, the 1938 hurricane remains the most costly to strike the eastern seaboard.

As with Irene, New Yorkers got away comparatively lightly in 1938. Connecticut was one of the worst hit states, and in an interesting footnote, a 31-year-old Katharine Hepburn was forced to wade through the sea to her beach house, only narrowly avoiding death or serious injury. By Alistair Dawber