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US begins clean-up in Isabel’s wake

Washington, Sept. 20 (Reuters): Communities along the US east coast have begun a massive clean-up after Hurricane Isabel, with authorities approving disaster aid and sending truckloads of relief supplies, but local officials said it would take months to fix the damage.

President George W. Bush signed disaster declarations for North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, the hardest-hit areas, opening the way for federal assistance and aid programmes.

The department of homeland security said it was coordinating the federal government response after Isabel ripped through the mid-Atlantic region, leaving at least 23 people dead.

More that 70 truckloads of water, emergency meals, tents, cots, blankets, portable toilets, generators, plastic sheeting and roofing material had been sent to areas hit by floods and high winds, the department said.

The director of the federal emergency management Agency, Michael Brown, told people to be cautious when returning to their homes.

“While the immediate danger is past, there are downed power lines, high water and other dangers that still threaten public safety,” he said. Clean-up crews worked to clear thousands of fallen trees and fix downed electrical power lines as utilities said they were restoring services to millions of homes knocked off the grid when Isabel tore through the region on Thursday and yesterday. By early yesterday evening, power companies said 3.9 million homes were still without electricity compared with nearly six million at the height of the storm.

The Coast Guard began flying search patrols along the path of the hurricane with helicopters equipped to pluck to safety people stranded on rooftops or in their cars.

Insurers said the total damage bill may be between $500 million and $1 billion, far less than the $4 billion feared earlier in the week when Isabel was still over the Atlantic and graded as a category 5 hurricane. Its strength had diminished by the time it made landfall in a relatively thinly populated area.

, but it still packed a destructive punch as it headed inland and up toward the Great Lakes and Canada.

Officials in Dare County, which encompasses part of the Outer Banks including hard-hit Hatteras Island, Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, made a preliminary estimate of some $544.9 million in damage county-wide.

That included $313 million in damage on Hatteras Island alone, Cahoon said.

”The Outer Banks took a good licking here. This is about as hard as they've been hit in a long time,” North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said.

Of Hatteras Island, Easley said,“What I saw was a lot of sand pushed over the road. There's no way you could travel on that. Where there wasn't sand, there was water.”

The road would have to be rebuilt before repair crews can gain access, so it could be quite some time before Hatteras gets electricity again, he said. (Additional reporting by David Morgan in Philadelphia, Jim Loney in Manteo, .C., Gene Cherry in Raleigh, .C., Christina Ling in Richmond, Va., Joanne Allen, Sue Pleming and John Crawley in Washington and Scott DiSavino in New York)

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