By Scott Malone
BRATTLEBORO, Vermont (Reuters) - Vermont officials surveyed washed out roads, swept-away bridges and homes bobbing in water on Monday after a weakened but still destructive Hurricane Irene drenched the state, causing the worst flooding in 80 years.
At least one person was killed after being swept into a swollen river on Sunday and several of the state's historic covered bridges were washed away when Irene's rains sent rivers spilling over their banks.
Irene had been reduced to tropical storm status by the time it reached Vermont but still dumped a near record 7 inches of rain. Officials called the flooding catastrophic and said it was the state's worst natural disaster since floods in 1927.
As the sun came out on Monday, Governor Peter Shumlin and Senator Patrick Leahy toured the devastation from helicopter and in cars. Crews spread out around the state to begin clearing downed trees, restoring power and rebuilding roadways.
Early Monday, the mountainous, land-locked New England state, which rarely sees tropical storms, received a federal disaster declaration from Washington, ensuring access to federal money to help clean up. Vermont is one of the states least insured states for flood.
"I keep being somewhat disappointed by some of the national press that think because Manhattan wasn't hit, everything is fine. We're not Manhattan, but we have human lives here in Vermont, too," Shumlin said, calling the storm's damage shocking and devastating.
He and Leahy surveyed the Whetstone Studio for the Arts in Brattleboro, an artsy community of 12,000, along the Connecticut River. Gushing water ate away at the building and left its second floor dangling precariously over the flood.
Officials worried more damage may yet come because some of the state's biggest rivers had not crested yet. They also warned that some of the 50,000 customers still without power might have to wait several days for electricity to come on.
"Some of the power loss is in some very remote areas and the roads to get there are gone," said Mark Bosma, a spokesman for the state's emergency management agency.
Several people had to be rescued from floodwaters, Vermont State Hospital patients had to be moved, and more than 250 people crowded into shelters after fleeing flooded homes, Bosma said. He said the number of people seeking shelter was large for the state.
SWIMMING TO RESCUE CAT
By Monday morning, residents were detailing their misery.
Kevin Putnam, 45, was busy pumping out the basement of his parents' home on Monday, after the floodwaters had risen almost to their first-floor windows. "It was scary, there were giant boulders bouncing down the brook," Putnam said.
After evacuating his parents from the home on Sunday, he returned to save their 15-year-old cat, Sophie, swimming across the backyard to do so. "She's the meanest cat ever, but I had to do it," Putnam said.
"It was amazing," said Dan Ireton, a 61-year-old musician. "You could hear the trees cracking. One cracked and then the lights went out, and we said, 'That was our power.'"
In Woodstock, sometimes called America's prettiest small town, a water main break left the village without water to faucets and toilets but with plenty gushing through the streets, including through the bottom of the Woodstock Inn.
The Simon Pearce glass blowing studio in Quechee, which draws power from the Ottaquechee River, was flooded and the historic bridge leading to the studio, store and restaurant was teetering, a staff member said.
"It is complete mayhem up here," a spokesman at the Woodstock police department said.
State offices, businesses and many schools were closed on Monday and officials urged Vermont residents to stay off the roads. Emergency crews were headed to worst hit areas in Rutland and Addison counties in the south and middle of the state.
Hurricane Irene started its sweep up the eastern seaboard in North Carolina on Saturday, and appeared to have inflicted the greatest damage inland from its heavy rains in western Massachusetts and Vermont.
Overnight nearly 300 roads in Vermont -- including interstate highways Routes 89 and 91 -- was closed down at some point because of flooding or downed trees, the emergency management agency noted.
Some people were ready to make the best of a bad situation.
David Williamson, who lives in Marlboro, Vermont, where every road out is washed out, said: "We are having a cocktail party tonight. We are making hurricanes and we will get loaded." A hurricane is an extremely sweet rum and fruit juice drink.
(Additional reporting by Toni Clarke and Lauren Keiper in Boston; Mike Miller in Vermont, Ben Berkowitz in New York. Writing by Svea Herbst-Bayliss, Editing by Jackie Frank)