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 programs.
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 than 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 in a statement.
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 Friday.
By early Friday 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.
Federal government offices were closed for two days in Washington but Isabel let the nation's capital off lightly.
The hurricane hit hardest when it made its landfall on North Carolina's Outer Banks, a barrier island chain that loops out into the Atlantic.
Five-meter sand dunes were flattened, beachfront cottages wrecked, roads wiped out and swimming pools piled on top of each other.
"All the towns along the coast have lost houses or hotels ... It will be months before we get back to normal, it will be next summer," said Renee Cahoon, a commissioner for coastal Dare County.
Insurers said the total damage bill may be between US$500 million and US$1 billion, far less than the US$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 US$544.9 million in damage county-wide.
That included US$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 Governor 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.