WASHINGTON — While many in major East Coast cities wondered whether officials over-prepared the public for Hurricane Irene, the answer from the mostly rural areas hardest hit by the storm was unequivocally no.
Although New York and other major cities were spared the worst of the storm, it slammed rural areas that will need federal help to rebuild. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency has little money left after a series of disasters this year, and Congress will have to address the agency's multiplying needs when it returns next week.
After tearing through eastern North Carolina late last week, Hurricane Irene dumped as much as a foot of rain on parts of the Northeast, including upstate New York and Vermont.
A series of disasters this year, including tornadoes in the Southeast and flooding in the Midwest, have drained FEMA's coffers. The agency anticipates a shortfall of billions of dollars as the destruction adds up in Vermont and all the other states Irene affected.
"The expensive stuff is yet to come," said Jeff Finkle, the president of the Washington-based International Economic Development Council. "It's not going to surprise me to learn that they may have lost a school or a water treatment facility. Those are things that FEMA needs to help replace."
But now that the storm has blown over, some fear that the needs of the rural areas hit worst might get blown off simply because they're not as heavily populated.
Finkle said it paid to have political muscle. If the worst predictions about Irene's impact on New York City had proved true, its influential lawmakers would have had little trouble persuading Congress to act.
"To get the federal government's real attention, you have to have powerful legislators." he said. "FEMA can only go so far without special appropriations."
Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York, Bev Perdue of North Carolina and Peter Shumlin of Vermont have requested federal disaster declarations.
"I'm sure Cuomo will move heaven and earth," Finkle said.
While Irene first made landfall in the U.S. on Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane and was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit New York late that day, the storm shredded barrier islands in North Carolina, then dumped staggering amounts of rain from New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Vermont and upstate New York.
At least 40 deaths have been reported in 12 states.
"This still was a deadly storm," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday. "We're still in response mode in some places."
In Vermont, a foot of rain washed away roads and bridges and damaged or destroyed homes and businesses.
"Many parts of the state are completely cut off and are having food airlifted in," said David Carle, a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "This is unprecedented."
Joanne Gafas, of Bradford, Vt., said the state got hit hard because it had many waterways. She said the floodwaters weren't picky, sweeping away propane tanks, houses and cars.
"This is something that hasn't happened to us before, nothing to this extent," she said.
The storm also was devastating to North Carolina farmers preparing to harvest tobacco, corn, cotton and other crops. Hurricane-force winds and storm surge flooding wiped out much of the year's yield.
"There will be total losses in some areas," North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said Monday.
"It's bad," said Ray Boswell, a tobacco farmer in Selma, N.C., whose 200 acres of the crop were knocked flat. "In Eastern North Carolina, there's not going to be much tobacco left."
And Irene couldn't have come at a worse time for North Carolina tourism, a week before the busy Labor Day weekend.
Beachfront communities on the Outer Banks were evacuated, and the storm washed out large sections of state Highway 12, a main lifeline that connects barrier islands and the mainland. It could take months to repair.
"We went through this after the last hurricane, and it took a couple of months to get the traffic moving," Perdue said, referring to the damage that Hurricane Isabel caused in 2003.
And now disaster-affected communities face fallout from the ongoing debate in Washington about cutting federal spending and deficits. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that additional FEMA funding must be offset by cuts elsewhere.
But Rep. David Price, D-N.C., the ranking member of the House appropriations panel that funds FEMA, said that disaster relief shouldn't get tangled up in deficit-cutting fervor.
"When disasters occur, we have to designate emergency funds sufficient to get the job done," he said. "We need this money, and if there ever was a legitimate use of funds, this is it."
Price said it was unacceptable for the agency to have to ration its funds, taking away from ongoing disaster recovery efforts in the Midwest and Southeast to help the Northeast.
"What American communities need to hear is that Congress is attentive to this," he said. "That's the clear, unequivocal signal I very much hope we'll hear from the Republican leadership."
With public trust in Congress at historic lows, disaster response is a chance for government to prove it works, Finkle said.
"What is the role of the federal government if not to resolve issues like this?" he asked.
(Howard reported from New York. Bruce Siceloff and John Murawski of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and Adam Sege in Washington contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY