Vignettes from Irene’s march up the East Coast

Hurricane Irene continues to soak the coast with heavy rain and high winds in Rehoboth Beach, Del., on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011. (AP/Delaware County Daily Times, Chuck Snyder)

Hurricane Irene continues to soak the coast with heavy rain and high winds in Rehoboth Beach, Del., on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011. (AP/Delaware County Daily Times, Chuck Snyder) Photo by The Associated Press.

PILESGROVE, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey State Trooper Daniel Cunning was on duty when a hurricane made landfall in New Jersey for only the third time in two centuries.

Fighting ferocious winds and stinging rain, Cunning would save a life and lose a life in the darkness of the same flooded road.

Twenty-year-old Celena Sylvestri was driving along Route 40 just before 1 a.m. Sunday. The small stream that ran along the road in Pilesgrove had swollen so large that by the time she reached the Kings Highway crossroad, police said, she had driven into it.

Cunning was one of three troopers and a fire truck crew to rush to the scene. He looked around frantically. Nothing. So he went down to the next crossroad, hoping he might catch her downstream.

“I was looking for a person, or vehicle, or anything at that point,” he said.

He saw nothing. At dawn, a swift-water rescue diver was brought in and located Sylvestri’s car, submerged below four feet of water. Her body was recovered.

As he was searching, on the other side of Route 40, 68-year-old James Troy made the same mistake and drove into the rushing water. His truck quickly washed down into woods, which by then had become a river, and he washed out of the truck.

As Cunning looked for the young woman, the report came in about a man in the water, who by then was clinging to a tree.

Cunning, a former lifeguard, ran back to the fire truck, tied a 70-foot rope to his waist, and began wading into the water. Soon, he was up to his waist.

“I thought it was going to knock me down,” the 6-foot-3-foot trooper said.

He called out and heard an answer.

Once they spotted Troy, Cunning said they tried to throw him a life-preserver. It didn’t work. So the fire truck drove further into the water, with Cunning still attached, and the former lifeguard swam to rescue Troy.

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ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — Parishioners of Holy Family Catholic Church sang a hymn on Sunday that assumed a new resonance the day after Hurricane Irene whipped through the area: “God will protect us from darkness and death,” goes a line in “Rain Down.”

“Across the street from us, a big tree came down, but it just fell right between the houses,” parishioner Jeffrey Hale said. “No damage. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to come to church and give thanks.”

Holy Family is the only Catholic parish for miles. The church draws its members from all over the Albemarle Sound, and many drive 30 minutes or more for services. About 80 people gathered for Mass on Sunday, less than a third of the usual crowd.

“Are we having Mass? Is the pope Catholic?” the Rev. James Buchholz told a carload of parishioners that pulled up to the church to ask if services were still on.

Buchholz also celebrated Mass Saturday evening at Holy Family as Irene was passing through the area.

“When you see the power of God in the kind of wind and rain we had yesterday, you realize there are many things to be thankful for,” he said in an interview.

Like much of surrounding Elizabeth City, Holy Family largely escaped damage. A few leaks in the roof and a parking lot covered by leaves and twigs were about the extent of it. The sound system wasn’t working, but the voices of the worshippers rang out in the building as they sang “Hallelujah” and recited a prayer improvised by Buchholz: “Lord, for those who were caught in inclement weather, for those who made it through and for those having rough times today, we pray. Lord, hear our prayer.”

“This wasn’t a hurricane. This was more like a Nor’Easter,” said Bill Hogue, 82, a retired steelworker from Pittsburgh who’s lived in the area for 18 years. Hogue said the winds knocked over some pillars below a porch at his home, but otherwise the damage was minimal.

Hogue’s daughter had repeatedly asked her father, a Korean War veteran, to leave North Carolina ahead of Irene and join her in Virginia. Hogue shook his head at the idea.

“Why? So I can be stuck on 95 with all the other idiots?” he said. “I’ve got brick walls and shatterproof windows. I’m fine here.”

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GREENPORT, N.Y. (AP) — On Long Island, some left their homes Sunday for coffee and other essentials.

In the harborfront town of Greenport, nearly every store was boarded up with plywood and there were piles of seaweed on the sidewalk.

A few people ventured into the streets, which were still being buffeted by powerful winds.

“We came out here looking for coffee because our house lost power,” said Angelica Bengloa, who is vacationing at her summer home in nearby East Marion. “We found a place open here, and as soon as they served us, their power went out. So we’re very lucky.”

Bengloa said her family is prepared for several days without electricity. She doesn’t have to go to work in Manhattan this week because she’s still on vacation, so she’s not too concerned about hunkering down for a while. Her waterfront home hardly had any damage aside from a few downed tree limbs.

“We are prepared. We have batteries and food,” she said. “We filled the bathtub with water so we can flush the toilet.”

At a darkened 7-11 store in Southold, Chris Charczak was stocking up on saltine crackers and Coca-Cola. The store had a sign on the front that said: “OPEN. NO COFFEE.” Charczak had lost power at his home, but he said it wasn’t an big inconvenience.

“We’ll just hang out, camp out in the house,” the 30-year-old said. “Camp stoves, lanterns, everything. Everyone out here is so used to storms.”

Riz Haq, who was working the register in the 7-11, said the store lost power Sunday at 6 a.m. and doesn’t have a generator.

“Everything will go bad. Ice cream, ice, all sandwiches, everything,” Haq said. “What can I do, you know?”

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MANTEO, N.C. (AP) — A lot of people who rode out Irene in their homes say they were underwhelmed by the storm. Not Wade Thompson. Even though his house largely escaped damage, he says he won’t take any chances next time.

During the week, he heard the news about the hurricane and decided to stay with his family in his one-story, wood-frame home in Manteo. He followed the usual steps: He put plywood up on his windows. Stocked up on water and flashlights and batteries. He stocked coolers with sandwich meats. He had plenty of charcoal to grill the meat he knew would defrost in his freezer because he would lose power.

“I was as ready as you can be.”

On Friday night, he huddled with his family in the living room and waited.

And the storm came. Strong gusts of winds rocked his house. Power went out. He could hear debris banging against the house.

When the howling winds died down, he went outside Saturday to survey the damage. That day there was none.

By Sunday morning, water from the Roanoake Sound flooded his garage and submerged his front steps. But other than leaving behind muck, it caused little damage on his property.

“Look, I don’t mind this. It could have been worse. I was blessed, really,” said the 37-year-old construction worker.

He glimpsed his neighborhood. A tree had crashed into a neighbor’s roof. Tree limbs and other debris littered neighbors’ lawns. A thick black muck coated streets and grass.

The next time, he plans to evacuate.

“What if that tree had landed on my house? If this would have been a Category 3 or 4, what if we had 110 mile and hour winds? What then? God had his hand on us,” he said. “I’m not going to take any chances again.”

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MILFORD, Conn. (AP) — For wheelchair users like Pat Dillon, losing electrical power from Irene’s wrath is not just an inconvenience but a danger.

The 52-year-old Milford resident was among those sitting in the dark at a senior housing complex where power and a generator failed. Dillon, who was partially paralyzed from a stroke, was worried that her chair would die soon if it’s not charged and the insulin in her refrigerator would go bad.

“What if we’re without power for days?” Dillon asked. “Once the refrigerator gets warm, my insulin goes bad. I could go into diabetic shock.”

Another resident, 62-year-old Michael Lisej leaned against a cane, watching the powerful winds whip trees. He uses oxygen sometimes and was wondering how he would make it back to his third-floor apartment with no elevators.

“It’s going to be rough on me to use the stairs,” Lisej said. “I got bad knees, and I have a heart condition.”

But Lisej was counting his blessings, too. The housing complex is close to Long Island Sound, which gushed up onto a road nearby.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” he said. “It’s an act of nature. It could have been worse. Maybe this building could have caved in.”

Richard Sutphin, a 68-year-old resident of the complex who is diabetic, said he had to inject himself with insulin in the dark. He placed a flashlight on the table so he could see what he was doing.

Sutphin noted that many residents were without power.

“The longer it goes on the more nervous you get,” he said.

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — In a hurricane that didn’t fully deliver on its fearsome forecast for most areas, Casey and Denise Robinson’s battered beach house is a terrible testament to the fickle nature of extreme weather.

The Robinsons and a crew of friends arrived early Sunday to begin picking up the pieces of the storm-ravaged family getaway snuggled in the dunes of the Sandbridge section of Virginia Beach. A tornado spawned by the storm ripped the roof off their house and clawed through its contents, tossing insulation, shards of glass and splintered wood into trees, dunes and low-slung cactus.

“This one’s totaled,” Casey Robinson said as he hastily gathered up boogie boards and other familiar remnants of the family beach house. “This is the only one on the beach that got hit this hard.”

The Robinsons went about their salvage work with unexpected cheer, reminiscing about the good times they had with their two children over the six or seven years they had owned the house.

“This foosball table’s ruined,” Denise Robinson said. “We played a lot of tournaments on that.”

Casey Robinson, who said he and his wife and two teenage children were at their primary residence in Virginia Beach when the beach house was destroyed, summed up their sentiments with a shrug.

“No one got hurt. What are you going to do?” he asked.

The Robinsons managed to find humor in the ordeal, which included looters taking a bottle of vodka after the storm.

“They’re probably all doing shots now,” Denise Robinson said with a laugh.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Roommates Amanda Johnson and John Hicks picked a good time to start their move from a rented rowhouse in Northwest Washington to another one in the same neighborhood. They’re sleeping in the new one but still have many of their belongings in the other one because the leases overlap.

Shortly before noon Sunday, they returned to the old house to do some laundry, only to discover that Irene had opened a gaping hole in the third-floor wall that stretched across three houses. Hundreds of bricks were strewn across the front of the homes, and the portico above the front door of the house had been knocked askew.

Johnson and Hicks, both 24, aren’t even sure what caused the damage. None of the trees nearby were tall enough to have crashed into the homes.

“Nobody got hurt,” Johnson said. “We have renters’ insurance, and the owner has insurance. It’s just a little ridiculous.”

The city had posted signs and police tape warning people to stay away from the houses, but Hicks sneaked inside anyway.

“My pet lizard is here,” he said. “I gave him water and food. I’ll get him later.”

Johnson and Hicks posed for pictures in front of the ruined house Sunday afternoon. Two passersby asked them the same question about the damage: “Is this from the earthquake or the hurricane?”

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PORT DEPOSIT, Md. (AP) After the power cut out at 3 a.m. Sunday, Debbie Hagerman had nothing to do but listen to Hurricane Irene.

Having heard about the death of a boy after a tree fell on a Virginia apartment, she was concerned about the trees in the woods surrounding her Cecil County home. Hagerman made everyone in the house sleep downstairs and she kept a door open to listen for the telltale crack of a tree snapping in the wind.

But there was no crack when a tree uprooted outside at 6 a.m. It just shook the whole house as it rumbled through her two grown daughters’ second-floor bedrooms with a crash bigger than the East Coast earthquake just days earlier, she said.

“It fell right on my daughter’s bed,” she said. “If she had been in it she would have been squashed. She could have been killed.”

Hagerman thought her family was thoroughly prepared for the storm, but they weren’t prepared for a tree crashing into the house she shares with her ailing mother, two daughters, one daughter’s fiance, two cats and two dogs.

Hagerman had convinced her boyfriend, Chester Vickers, to stay over with his daughter because she thought they would be safer in her house than in their mobile home. She says the family was ready to do without power for a couple of days, but now they’ll have to find a place to live until the house can be fixed up.

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Tom Breen in Elizabeth City, N.C.; John Christoffersen in Milford, Conn.; Mitch Weiss in Manteo, N.C.; Meghan Barr in Greenport, N.Y.; Steve Szkotak in Virginia Beach, Va.; Ben Nuckols in Washington and Sarah Brumfield in Baltimore.

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