By Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Toni Clarke
BOSTON (Reuters) - As Tropical Storm Irene churned up the eastern seaboard it left many of New England's coastal states relatively unscathed while inflicting some of the worst damage on landlocked Vermont, where severe flooding was a grave concern.
Vermont, the furthest west of the New England states, is also one of the greenest, filled with waterways that contribute to its lush scenery. Those waterways are now overflowing, prompting hundreds of evacuations.
Some 40,000 to 50,000 people are without power.
"It's very serious for us at the moment in Vermont. The top two-thirds of the state are inundated with rapidly rising waters, which we anticipate will be an issue for the next 24 hours," said Robert Stirewalt, a spokesman for Vermont Emergency Management Agency.
It is extremely rare for a storm of this magnitude to hit the state in the late summer. Stirewalt said shelters across the state are filling rapidly. In Brattleboro, in the southern part of the state, 60 people have been evacuated to shelters. That figure is expected to rise to 100 within the hour.
As the storm moves north, more shelters are filling.
"Right now, evacuation is our main issue," Stirewalt said.
Elsewhere in New England, residents breathed a sigh of relief as the storm's bark appeared to be worse than its bite.
From Massachusetts' eastern islands to the western Berkshires mountain range, officials reported flooded roadways, trees downed over rail tracks and evacuations in some towns. Normally sandy beaches jammed with people were deserted rock fields churned up by the sea.
Authorities braced for dam failures in the Berkshires because of the heavy rains and were concerned about the next tide cycle, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said.
A tornado watch and a flood watch were in effect for parts of southern New England, where winds with gusts of up to 70 mph were forecast, according to the National Weather Service.
Hurricane Irene, downgraded to a tropical storm on Sunday morning, flooded waterfronts and low-lying areas in New York City, but it did not cause the devastation some had feared.
In New England, the storm knocked down power lines, leaving 650,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts without electricity, officials said. Crews were being dispatched but had to work cautiously in the high winds.
AIRPORTS OPEN, FLIGHTS CANCELED
Few people were moving around on Sunday.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority suspended service from 8 a.m. on Sunday and Amtrak halted all rail service in the northeast.
"We've been telling staff that when they come in they may have to stay beyond the end of their shift, or overnight," said Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency management at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"We have sleeping quarters set up and last night a number of staff spent the night, and others will tonight, either because they have no way to get home since the transportation system has shut down, or because they don't feel safe on the roads," he said.
Boston's Logan International Airport was open even though all but two airlines had canceled all flights, airport spokesman Phil Orlandella said.
Restaurants that normally do brisk business for brunch on Sunday were shut. "I'm the only one here and I'm just here to answer the phone and say we are closed," said Mario Detina at Anthony's Pier 4, a Boston seafood restaurant.
Still, as grey skies lifted a little, some people began venturing out. "The biggest challenge will be keeping people safe and away from our 21 beach communities," Rhode Island National Guard spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Denis Riel said, saying local police had set up barricades.
Tim Murdoch and Heidi Kayser ventured to Boston Harbor to see the storm surge but found a less dramatic than anticipated scene. "The really big storms never make it this far up," said Murdoch. "It's never quite what it is built up to be. We've had plenty of storms like this."
While many had prepared dutifully, others were betting that Irene would fail to live up to its expectations.
"The boatyard at Grey Lady Marine (on Nantucket) is packed with boats on land, including mine, but people were jaded by (Hurricane) Earl, which happened this time last year and turned out to be much less than expected," said David Southwell, chief financial officer of biotech company Human Genome Sciences.
"So there were a lot of boats still on their moorings."
Police said they arrested a surfer who refused to leave the beach in Hull, Massachusetts, but there have been no rescues in the state.
"Our ships are all still in the harbor," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Simpson. "So far it has been all quiet."
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Toni Clarke; Editing by Todd Eastham)