Flood worries and some relief in Irenes wake

NEW YORK – Stripped of hurricane rank, Tropical Storm Irene spent the last of its fury Sunday, leaving treacherous flooding and millions without power – but an unfazed New York and relief that it was nothing like the nightmare authorities feared.

Slowly, the East Coast surveyed the damage, up to $7 billion by one private estimate, and worried of danger still lurking: the possibility of rivers and streams swelling with rainwater and overflowing over the next few days.

“This is not over,” President Barack Obama said from the Rose Garden.

Meanwhile, the nation’s most populous region looked to a new week and the arduous process of getting back to normal.

New York lifted its evacuation order for 370,000 people and said it hoped to have its subway, shut down for the first time by a natural disaster, rolling again Monday, though maybe not in time for the morning commute. Philadelphia restarted its trains and buses.

“All in all,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “we are in pretty good shape.”

At least 15 people died in the storm, most of them when trees crashed through roofs or onto cars.

Two pillars of the neighborhood came through the storm just fine: The New York Stock Exchange said it would be open for business on Monday, and the Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center site didn’t lose a single tree.

The center of Irene passed over Central Park at midmorning with the storm packing 65 mph winds. By evening, with its giant figure-six shape brushing over New England and drifting east, it was down to 50 mph. It is expected to drift into Canada early Monday.

Twenty homes on Long Island Sound in Connecticut were destroyed by churning surf. The torrential rain chased hundreds of people in upstate New York from their homes and washed out 137 miles of the state’s main highway.

Rivers roared in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In Rhode Island, which has a geography thick with bays, inlets and shoreline, authorities were worried about coastal flooding at evening high tide.

The storm system knocked out power for 4 million people along the Eastern Seaboard. Power companies were picking through uprooted trees and reconnecting lines in the South and had restored electricity to hundreds of thousands of people by Sunday afternoon.

Under its first hurricane warning in a quarter-century, New York took extraordinary precautions. There were sandbags on Wall Street, tarps over subway grates and plywood on storefront windows.

The subway stopped rolling. Broadway and baseball were canceled.

Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center, called it a textbook case.

“They knew they had to get people out early,” he said. “I think absolutely lives were saved.”

Mayfield credited government officials – but also the meteorologists. Days before the storm ever touched American land, forecast models showed it passing more or less across New York City.

In the storm’s wake, hundreds of thousands of passengers still had to get where they were going. Airlines said about 9,000 flights were canceled.

In the South, authorities still were not sure how much damage had been done. North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said some parts of her state were unreachable. TV footage showed downed trees, toppled utility poles, mangled power lines and awnings.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell had initially warned that Irene could be a “catastrophic” monster with record storm surges of up to 8 feet. But the mayor of Virginia Beach, Va., suggested on Twitter that the damage was not as bad as feared, as did the mayor of Ocean City, Md.

One of two nuclear reactors at Calvert Cliffs, Md., automatically went offline because of high winds. Constellation Energy Nuclear Group said the plant was safe.

“Whether we dodged a bullet or you look at it and said, ‘God smiled on us,’ the bottom line is, I’m happy to report, there do not appear to be any deaths attributable to the storm,” Bloomberg said.

New York officials could not pinpoint when the trains would run again but warned that the Monday commute would be rough. The New York subway carries 5 million riders on an average weekday.

In Philadelphia, the mayor lifted the city’s first state of emergency since 1986. The storm was blamed for the collapses of seven buildings, but no one was hurt and everyone was accounted for.

The 15 deaths attributed to the storm included five in North Carolina, four in Virginia, two in rough surf in Florida, and one each in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Irene was the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental U.S. since 2008, and came almost six years to the day after Katrina ravaged New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.

As the East Coast cleans up, it can’t afford to get too comfortable. Off the coast of Africa is a batch of clouds that computer models say will probably threaten the East Coast 10 days from now, Mayfield said. The hurricane center gave it a 40 percent chance of becoming a named storm over the next two days.

“Folks on the East Coast are going to get very nervous again,” Mayfield said.

When Catherine Haas, a senior majoring in social work, turned right on a red light at the intersection of 56th Street and Fowler Avenue during her freshman year, she said she didn’t think twice about it.

That was until her father called a few weeks later and told her she had received a ticket from a red-light camera at the intersection, she said.

“He told me it was for running a red light, and I was like, ‘I haven’t run any red lights,'” Haas said. “Then he said, ‘They have it on video and everything,’ and I was like, ‘Are you kidding?'”

Tampa Police assistant chief Marc Hamlin said the city looked at Hillsborough County intersections like these before deciding to install 18 new red-light cameras – despite criticisms and closures in other cities.

“That’s exactly what we did, and we heard the idea of red-light cameras going around the country and thought that would be a good way to proceed in the city of Tampa,” he said.

Hamlin said he is uncertain of when the cameras will be installed.

He said the locations were chosen by identifying the 20 intersections with the highest incidences of crashes. Two of them – Nebraska Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard – are on Fowler Avenue. Hillsborough Avenue and 40th Street was not pursued at the same time due to construction, but Hamlin said it is where the highest number of crashes occurred in the city. That area will soon be considered for red-light cameras.

Violators will be fined $158 after a 30-day trial period, and American Traffic Solutions (ATS) will provide the cameras.

Hamlin said the Tampa Police Department is purely “in the safety business” and believes red-light cameras would be the best way to reduce crashes from red-light running.

“You can’t monitor every intersection 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a police officer, but you can with a camera, and if people know cameras are up there, they won’t run the red lights,” he said.

Yet, two major cities have elected to get rid of their red-light camera systems within the last month. On Wednesday, Houston’s City Council voted to shut off its cameras due to citizen complaints, despite threatened legal action from ATS. The L.A. City Council voted unanimously to turn off its cameras July 31 after it was revealed paying the fines was voluntary under state law.

Etienne Pracht, associate professor of Health Policy and Management at USF, said the cameras raise additional concerns.

He said he published his updated study this year with professors Barbara Orban and John Large that reviewed previous red-light camera studies. He said the most scientifically rigorous studies showed an increase in injury crashes, such as rear-end collisions, at red-light camera intersections.

“When you look at the better studies out there, what you would find is that these cameras are kind of dangerous,” Pracht said. “They create accidents through rear-end collisions and whatnot.”

He said there are also legal disputes with the cameras, such as the lack of “same crime, same punishment” with red-light camera violation fines.

“Right now, I think one of the legal arguments that’s being made is that if you get pulled over for running a red light by a police officer, the ticket is different than if you get caught on those cameras,” Pracht said.

Haas said she remains uncertain about the public safety of the cameras.

“I feel mixed on it because if somebody knew there was a red-light camera there, they may be more cautious and that could prevent accidents,” she said. “But at the same time, if there was a cop sitting there, I don’t think I would’ve gotten pulled over. So I feel like it can be helpful, but at the same time, it can wrongfully target.”

Two years in the making, the FleX House is close to completion for an international competition.

The net-zero solar energy home is being built by USF and other Florida university architects and engineers, both students and faculty.

Team Florida, which also includes the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida, came together for the biennial competition called the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. The contest challenges 20 collegiate teams to build solar-powered homes that are “cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive,” according to its website.

The FleX House is two weeks away from being shipped to Washington, D.C., where it will compete from Sept. 23 to Oct. 2 against 19 other entries in 10 contests that judge affordability and architecture.

USF architecture faculty adviser Stanley Russell, said the entire team will go to Washington, for the competition.

He said the project is close to completion and gave Provost Ralph Wilcox a tour Thursday of the downtown Tampa construction site, which is located on Seventh Avenue.

“It’s really a tense time for us,” Russell said. “We’re in a good position, but we still have a lot of work to do. Yeah, there’s a little tension in the air, but at the same time, it feels good to be this far along.”

He said the team is still awaiting a steel shipment to create the flexible umbrella-like shading structure over the house that will keep it cool through summer months and warm through cooler months. The steel should ship today.

The photovoltaic array, a grid system of solar panels that absorbs solar energy and sends it to power utilities, was installed last week.

Dimitar Dimitrov, a graduate student in architecture, was involved in designing sliding doors and panels that allow rooms to be partitioned without losing insulation.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about the real-world problems (associated with constructing).”

Dimitrov said, along with Russell and others, the crew has spent most days at the site since construction broke ground in May. Beck Group, the company contracted to build the house, often has questions about how to implement the design, Russell said.

Mark Weston, a USF faculty member working on the project who teaches digital fabrication and design, was responsible for creating the initial models of the plans sent to the competition.

Using a software program called Revit, Weston and students created a 3D model of the house in 2010, along with a set of drawings that explained how to build the house.

Weston said seeing the house go from a mere conceptualization to a tangible structure has been a rewarding process.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s a real example of what we’re capable of. It’s a forward-looking vision of the future where housing can actually start to relieve the energy burden we’re facing.”

The beginning of a new semester is historically a time for traffic concerns.

Yet this year, University Police (UP) spokesman Lt. Chris Daniel said he feels UP, along with SAFE Team and Allied Barton security, significantly decreased the number of accidents on campus during the first week of the semester.

“We wanted to maximize opportunity and effectiveness,” he said. “(And) through high visibility, education and enforcement, it all helped.”

He said there were no vehicle-versus-pedestrian accidents in the first week, only a couple low-speed vehicle versus vehicle accidents in parking lots and one single-vehicle accident at Alumni and Magnolia drives Thursday.

The first week of fall 2010 saw 12 traffic accidents during the first two days.

According to a UP media release, there was only one person involved in the single-vehicle accident. The person was transported to a local hospital for evaluation after being removed from the overturned car by Tampa Fire Rescue.

Approximately $20,000 in damage resulted from the crash, according to the release, “including damage to a Blue-Light Emergency telephone and a Shriners Hospital sign.”

Daniel said UP focused on five different heavily used crosswalks and intersections last week: the intersection of Holly and Palm drives, the crosswalk on Maple Drive between the Sun Dome parking lot and the College of Business Administration, the crosswalks on Leroy Collins Boulevard by the parking garage, the engineering buildings and Alumni Drive area crosswalks and the entire span of Holly and Palm drives throughout the residence hall area.

– Reporting by Brittany Cerny