Updated 5:00 p.m. ET
MILFORD, Conn. - Irene was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm on Sunday morning, but forecasters said it still was packing a powerful enough punch to continue delivering heavy rain to northern New England into Sunday night.
At 5 p.m. the National Hurricane Center announced that the tropical storm was 65 miles south of Rutland, Vt., traveling north-northeast at a a speed of 26 mph. Maximum sustained winds were 50 mph.
Tropical Storm Irene sent water splashing into the streets of shoreline communities Sunday as it surged across Connecticut, toppling trees and cutting power to 700,000 customers. One person was killed in a fire sparked by downed wires.
The water surged over a sea wall in East Haven, flooding one coastal road with waist-deep water and damaging houses. East Haven Mayor April Capone said authorities were trying to confirm a report that some beach houses had fallen into the water, but she was not aware of any injuries or fatalities.
"We know we've lost many decks, porches and things like that," Capone said.
The storm was downgraded from a hurricane before its center reached the state and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he was already shifting attention to the recovery effort, but officials were keeping a wary eye on rising waters. Malloy said dams would be opened to ease the flooding risk on the swollen Housatonic River.
Seawater was also flooding streets in other shoreline towns and cities including Bridgeport, Westbrook and Fairfield.
"The water is flowing up the streets and making them impassable," said Mike Tetreau, first selectman in the town of Fairfield, one of 32 municipalities that reported evacuations ahead of the storm.
Streets were blocked across southern parts of the state by fallen trees and power lines. In Middletown, storm-driven winds on the Connecticut River pushed white caps against boats that had been anchored away from shore to avoid a battering on the dock.
Some people in East Haven who did not follow warnings to evacuate had to be rescued as the storm surge arrived, Capone said. In Milford, the National Guard was responding to three requests to save people stranded by the water, according to Col. John Whitford, a spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard. Whitford said 900 troops were posted at armories across the state and ready to assist with the recovery.Capone said she was frustrated that some were coming out in the storm for sightseeing, saying they were getting in the way of emergency workers.
One person died overnight and another was severely injured in a fire at a house in Prospect, said Lt. J. Paul Vance, a state police spokesman. Malloy said the blaze was apparently caused by wires knocked down by the storm. Two firefighters were also received treatment for electric shocks.
In Bridgeport, two patients dependent on respirators were carried down five flights of stairs after the facility lost power and the generator failed. They were taken to hospitals, city spokeswoman Elaine Ficarra.
Malloy said that 700,000 customers - about half the state - were without power. Connecticut Light & Power spokesman Dave Radanovich said the utility had the most outages ever for a single event, shattering a record set in 1985 when Hurricane Gloria knocked out power to 477,000 customers.
Officials predicted widespread, prolonged outages, possibly lasting several days. Spokesmen for Connecticut Light & Power Co. and The United Illuminating Co., the two major electricity utilities in the state, said hundreds of regular crews and hundreds of out-of-state workers, including some from as far away as Alabama, Michigan and Quebec will be ready to begin restoring outages as soon as the weather permits.
Disabled residents of a nursing home in Milford who were sitting in the dark after a generator failed said they were worried about a lengthy outage.
"Once the refrigerator gets warm, my insulin goes bad. I could go into diabetic shock. It's kind of scary because we don't know how long it's going be out for," said Pat Dillon, 52, who was partially paralyzed from a stroke.
Another resident, Michael Lisej, 62, sometimes uses oxygen 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. I just have to take my time."
Richard Sutphin, a 68-year-old resident of the complex who is diabetic, said he had to inject himself with insulin in the dark, using a flashlight to see what he was doing.
"The longer it goes on the more nervous you get," he said.
As the storm approached some 1,600 people were huddled in shelters, including Gerard Jamieson and his wife, Debbie, who were riding out the storm with their four children in a high school cafeteria in Milford. They arrived Saturday night after cutting short a camping trip in Maine, but he said they barely slept because they wanted to keep an eye on the children around so many strangers.
"We just felt it would be a better idea coming here because we have four kids," he said. "We were pretty much up all night."
Some who lost power were venturing out in the rain for coffee, cigarettes and snacks at the Eagle MiniMart Sunoco in Middletown.
"It was either this or fire up the generator just to plug in my Keurig" coffee maker, said Edward Young, 44, who was buying a large coffee and a pack of Marlboro Reds.
Kevin Bush, 41, who was also buying cigarettes, said he'd filled jugs and his bathtub with water to use to flush the toilet, but was unimpressed by the storm so far.
"It's not that bad, really," he said, ducking out into the rain.
The Millstone nuclear power complex in Waterford, right next to Long Island Sound, was operating at reduced power and was prepared to shut down the two reactors if winds were expected to reach more than 90 mph. But Millstone spokesman Ken Holt said a shutdown did not seem likely.
"We have robust flood barriers in place. We have water-tight doors," Holt said. "Nuclear power plants are among the most hardened structures in the country."
Malloy closed the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways because they were littered with debris but they were opened again by midday.
Nearly all flights at Bradley International Airport north of Hartford scheduled for Sunday were canceled, and airport officials were hoping to return to a normal schedule Monday.
Metro-North train service, Shoreline East rail service and Connecticut Transit bus service all were suspended.
Tropical Storm Irene's gusty winds and rain caused thousands of power outages and flooding Sunday in Massachusetts, and emergency officials warned that the downgraded storm still posed a significant threat.
Authorities were keeping an eye on the potential for a storm surge during evening high tide on the south coast and flooding in western Massachusetts from heavy rains.
People were being evacuated for flooding in the Berkshire County towns of Otis, Chester and Huntington, state police said. The Robin Hood Lake Dam in Berkshire County was spilling over, according to officials.
With steady winds downing trees and power lines, utilities reported that about 200,000 customers had lost power by late morning.
Irene, no longer a hurricane, was still a storm to be taken seriously, said Kurt Schwartz, the state's emergency management director.
"There will still be hurricane-force gusts as well as sustained winds of 60 mph," he said. "It doesn't mean we can relax or we're out of the woods."
On Cape Cod, about 75 people sought shelter at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School from Saturday into Sunday. They included people worried about flooding and 60 football players and coaches from Austin Preparatory School in Reading who had been at a football camp on the Cape since Thursday.
Head Coach Bill Maradei said he and the other coaches decided Saturday morning to take the players to the high school ahead of Irene.
"I told them we were going on an adventure," he said by phone from the shelter. "It's my 35th year and I've never had to leave before like this, so it was my adventure too."
They passed the time watching game film in the air-conditioned auditorium and catching up on summer reading. They tried to go outside to get some stretching in Sunday morning but the wind kicked up sand in the parking lot, forcing them back inside. Maradei said the shelter workers were accommodating and the players were well-behaved.
"You hear 50 teenage boys are coming at you, that might make you a little bit nervous, but they have been pleasantly surprised," he said.
The players were taking everything in stride and so were the others at the shelter, said Sandy Cashen, facility manager for Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District. She said people worried about their homes flooding felt better when workers were able to set up a TV so they could watch the news.
"People have a connection to the outside world. That makes a big difference," she said.
Wind gusts up to 72 mph were reported at Fairhaven in southeastern Massachusetts at midmorning, the National Weather Service reported.
Widespread rainfall of 3 to 6 inches was forecast, with up to 10 inches in the eastern slope of the Berkshires.
State police said the rising Westfield River was flooding Route 20 in Chester, and the Farmington River in Otis was also flooded.
Schwartz said a "relatively minor" mudslide in North Adams has compromised a natural gas line in the western Massachusetts city Sunday morning. He said utility officials had the situation under control. No injuries were reported and Schwartz was not aware of any evacuations.
Hundreds of fishing boats and other vessels rode out Irene in the harbor at New Bedford, a historic whaling port that remains one of New England's largest fishing ports. Mayor Scott Lang called the sight "amazing."
The city closed its hurricane gate at 5 a.m. Sunday and later closed a second gate on the south end of the city. Lang says there were reports of 8-12 foot swells in the outer harbor.
The mayor had asked residents of low-lying areas in the city to consider voluntarily evacuating. But he said only a couple of families were in a city-run shelter during the night.
In Gloucester in the northeastern part of the state, sightseers were watching wind-driven rain and high surf, leading police to close part of a scenic road on the east side of town. Paul Corn and his wife saw part of the storm's power closer to home.
"We were just sitting on our front porch enjoying the view and the storm. All of a sudden we heard cracking of the trees across the street, and they came down." One toppled to the street and the second onto a tree in the Corns' Gloucester yard.
In Boston, the MBTA suspended service on Sunday morning to avoid the storm and prepare to resume commuter service on Monday. Logan Airport remained open, but no flights were scheduled. Tolls were suspended on the Massachusetts Turnpike, where travel was light.
In Vermont, emergency officials on Sunday urged residents in low-lying areas to move to higher ground as the remnants of Hurricane Irene pounded the state, heavy rains washed out roads and high winds caused more than 18,000 power outages by midday.
"It looks like a log drive out here," Brattleboro marina owner Dennis Smith said as he gazed out over the confluence of the West and Connecticut rivers. "I'm just really glad we got all our boats out of the water," he said of a task completed Friday.
Southern Vermont appeared to have taken the brunt of the storm by early afternoon Sunday, with numerous roads washed out and residents of low-lying areas in Marlboro, Newfane and elsewhere evacuating as rivers rose.
About 50 people were being housed and fed at the Brattleboro Union High School, one of eight shelters opened by the American Red Cross around the state as waters rose.
Conditions were expected to worsen in a wave traveling north through the state during the day and into the night. Authorities in Montpelier said the North Branch of the Winooski River was expected to crest around midnight and were urging residents in low-lying areas near the river to be prepared to evacuate.