Isabel's trail of destruction leaves 16 dead

AT LEAST 16 people died and more than five million were left without electricity as Hurricane Isabel ripped through the eastern states of the US yesterday.

Although it was downgraded from hurricane to tropical storm, the authorities warned of further damage and casualties to come as waves of up to 8ft surged ashore and more than 20 inches of rain fell, causing severe flooding in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. Almost 6,000 flights were cancelled, leaving the airline network in chaos.

A major rescue operation involving the national guard was underway to help more than 20 residents trapped on their rooftops as flood waters rose in Gloucester, Virginia. The rising tide is not expected to recede until tomorrow.

The storm ploughed into North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Thursday with winds up to 105mph and moved across Virginia yesterday, where its speed eased to about 40mph. It moved into western Pennsylvania and was expected to sweep through western New York state before ending in Canada today.

Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said Isabel inflicted its worst damage along the Outer Banks. He added: "Our concern is we have about 4,000 people who refused to evacuate. We’re getting in to make sure they’re OK."

Joe Allbaugh, a former director of FEMA, said: "The storm may have blown out, but it’s not over yet. Over the next two to three days, the public has to remain on high alert for flooding. People should stay at home and not drive near flooded water. That’s where 50 per cent of hurricane deaths occur."

Jean Paul Zammit was one of many householders whose lives were disrupted by falling trees. Mr Zammit was sitting in his living-room in Middletown, New Jersey, when the roof caved in. He said: "It was just a big bang and crack, and the ceiling falling down and everything falling down."

Meyera Oberndorf, the mayor of Virginia Beach, told CNN that downed trees made up much of the damage in her town. "We’re going to be digging out and cleaning up for a good while," she said. "But we have this wonderful spirit. When the sun comes out, we can tackle anything."

Police said the worst damage was likely to be on southern Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island, where sustained winds reached 105 mph, but accessibility to those areas remained treacherous.

Many trees were also downed in the Washington area - including some at the White House. In the neighbouring suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, the Potomac River surged out of its banks, flooding streets in the historic Old Town section.

US government offices in Washington remained closed for a second day yesterday. The Office of Personnel Management estimated that, for executive branch offices, the cost of the shutdown is between $63 million (39 million) and $67 million (41 million) a day. That does not include costs associated with federal court closings or the suspension of business on Capitol Hill.

Congressional hearings were cancelled, and the House and Senate held sessions in name only, with few signs of politicians on Capitol Hill.

George Bush, the US president, who headed for Camp David on Wednesday, signed an emergency disaster declaration covering 26 counties in eastern North Carolina, and 18 counties and 13 cities in Virginia.

While out at sea, Isabel twice reached the Category 5 threshold of more than 150mph, the strongest classification for a hurricane. The last Category 5 hurricane to strike the US was Andrew in 1992.

Andrew, the costliest natural disaster in US history, killed 43 people in Florida and Louisiana and caused $26.5 billion (16 billion) in damage.

Another Category 5 hurricane, Camille, hit the upper Gulf Coast in 1969, causing $1.4 billion (86 million) in damage. In 1998, Category 5 hurricane Mitch hit Central America, killing about 11,000 people.

"It [Isabel] was no Fran or Floyd, but for the folks who have trees in their living rooms, that’s little comfort," said a North Carolina emergency management spokesman, Mark Van Sciver, referring to devastating hurricanes in 1992 and 1999.

And for some tourists gathered outside the White House, the fact that it was "no Fran or Floyd" was a major let-down. With no major damage and most of the monuments and businesses in Washington closed for a second day, David Kellam - visiting from Seattle - was not happy.

"It was disappointing," he said.