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East Coast Starts To Add Up Irene's Economic Blow

The day after Irene, clean-up efforts continue and the damage estimates are starting to come in. But overall, it appears to have caused much less damage than forecasters expected.

However, it's still early to make exact pronouncements about how much damage this storm caused or may still cause.

Swollen rivers in upstate New York and New England continue to threaten dams. And on Monday, President Obama said that the cleanup in many areas will be tough.

"The effects are still being felt across much of the country including in New England and states like Vermont, where there's been an enormous amount of flooding," he says. "So our response continues, but I'm going to make sure that FEMA and other agencies are doing everything in their power to help people on the ground."

In most places though, homeowners and small business owners are pulling down the plywood from their windows and feeling pretty good.

"We really got lucky," says Janet Cooper, owner of the East End art gallery in Margate City, N.J.

Like many business owners, she boarded up the big windows around her shop and was bracing for the worst.

"The ocean is two blocks right here," she says. "I'm in the direct line of fire."

Bad For Business

So Cooper feels fortunate to be able to open back up for business with no serious damage. But Irene was still bad for business because it turned this bustling summer tourist area into a ghost town.

"You know, of course, it takes away business from the next to the last weekend — big weekend in the summer season," she says. "We're very seasonal, and this hurts, this hurts everybody. But thank God our properties are OK and we really did dodge a bullet."

Damage estimates on Monday are putting the national price tag for the storm at as much as $10 billion — but that keeps the storm in the realm of more minor hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina, for example, caused more than eight times that much damage.

"I think we're all grateful that Irene did not live up to its billing as being one of the most destructive storms ever to strike the United States," says Robert Hartwig, an economist who tracks disaster damage and the president of the Insurance Information Institute.

"What we're looking at is total insured losses perhaps 3 to 4 to 5 billion [dollars] at this point, but this is well within the planning scenarios of what insurers expect in a given year," he says. "In fact, at the lower end of that scale this does not even make the top 10 list of largest hurricanes in the U.S."

More Dramatic and Expensive Events

Hartwig says even just this year the U.S. has seen far worse damage from other storms. Not hurricanes, but tornadoes in places such as Joplin, Miss., and Birmingham Ala.

"This year, so far more than 500 people have been killed by tornadoes, and those tornadoes have produced more than $16 billion in insured losses," he says. "So, so far this year those have been by far the most dramatic, expensive and tragic events."

Some investors Monday were relieved that Irene wasn't as bad as other big storms. The stocks of major insurance companies rose sharply.

Still, Hartwig says the East Coast remains vulnerable to large hurricanes. Irene lost its intensity in the end, but the next big storm might not. So he advises people to heed future evacuation orders and warnings. And he says this time around many people did.

But not everybody, in Newark, N.J., Demitrios Frangeas helps run his family restaurant Andros Diner.

"Multiple times we had Newark police officers and detectives, I guess, come in and inform us we were in a state of emergency, and they wanted people off the street," he says. "And they needed us to be shut down like everybody else."

But the family said they couldn't shut down because they've always been open 24 hours and didn't have any way to lock the door. "We lost the keys some 25-odd years ago," he says.

In the end, Andros Diner stayed open to feed police and rescue workers, and people who were staying in nearby shelters.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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