NEW YORK — A stunned U.S. East Coast faced a rising death toll, surging rivers, tornado damage and continuing calls for rescue Thursday after the remnants of Hurricane Ida walloped the region with record-breaking rain, drowning more than two dozen people in their homes and cars.
In a region that had been warned about potentially deadly flash flooding but hadn’t braced for such a blow from the no-longer-hurricane, the storm killed at least 40 people from Maryland to New York on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
At least 12 people died in New York City, police said, one of them in a car and 11 in flooded basement apartments that often serve as relatively affordable homes in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets. Officials said at least eight died in New Jersey and three in Pennsylvania’s suburban Montgomery County; one was killed by a falling tree, one drowned in a car and another in a home.
In New York City, Sophy Liu roused her son from bed, put on a life jacket on him and squeezed him into an inflatable swimming ring as their first-floor apartment flooded in Queens.
Unable to open the door against the force of the water, she called friends for help. The water was nearly five feet high when they came to her rescue, she said.
“I was obviously scared, but I had to be strong for my son. I had to calm him down,” she recalled Thursday as medical examiners removed three bodies from a home down the street.
In another part of Queens, water rapidly filled Deborah Torres’ first-floor apartment to her knees as her landlord frantically urged her neighbors below — who included a baby — to get out, she said. But the water rushed in so strongly that she surmised they weren’t able to open the door. The three residents died.
“I have no words,” she said. “How can something like this happen?”
Ida’s remnants maintained a soggy core, then merged with a more traditional storm front and dropped an onslaught of rain on the Interstate 95 corridor, meteorologists said. Similar weather has followed hurricanes before, but experts said it was slightly exacerbated by climate change — warmer air holds more rain — and urban settings, where expansive pavement prevents water from seeping into the ground.
The National Hurricane Center had warned since Tuesday of the potential for “significant and life-threatening flash flooding” and moderate and major river flooding in the mid-Atlantic region and New England.
Still, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the storm’s strength took them by surprise.
“We did not know that between 8:50 and 9:50 p.m. last night, that the heavens would literally open up and bring Niagara Falls level of water to the streets of New York,” said Hochul, a Democrat who became governor last week after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned.
De Blasio, also a Democrat, said he’d gotten a forecast Wednesday of 3 to 6 inches of rain over the course of the day. The city’s Central Park ended up getting 3.15 inches just in one hour, surpassing the previous recorded high of 1.94 inches in one hour during Tropical Storm Henri on Aug. 21.
The storm ultimately dumped over 9 inches of rain in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and nearly as much on New York City’s Staten Island.
In Washington, President Joe Biden assured Northeast residents that federal first responders were on the ground to help clean up after the latest disaster in two weeks of wild weather across the U.S. Wildfires are threatening Lake Tahoe, and Ida struck Louisiana as the fifth-strongest storm to ever hit the U.S. mainland, leaving 1 million people without power, maybe for weeks.
As its remnants hit New York, some highways flooded, garbage bobbed in water rushing down the streets and water cascaded into the city’s subway tunnels, trapping at least 17 trains and forcing the cancelation of service throughout the night and early morning. Videos online showed riders standing on seats in cars filled with water. All riders were evacuated safely, officials said.
At one Queens development, water filled the sunken patio of a basement apartment, then broke through a glass door and rushed in, trapping a 48-year-old woman in 6 feet of water. Neighbors unsuccessfully tried for an hour to save her.
“She was screaming, ‘Help me, help me, help me!’ We all came to her aid, trying to get her out. But it was so strong – the thrust of the water was so strong,” said the building’s assistant superintendent, Jayson Jordan.
In Elizabeth, New Jersey, near Newark Airport, four people died and 600 were left homeless from rain and river flooding in an apartment complex, Mayor J. Christian Bollwage said.
Neighbors described hearing screaming from the complex at about 11 p.m. as water flowed down the street, pushing dumpsters and cars around.
“Sandy had nothing on this,” resident Jennifer Vilchez said, referring to 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.
Greg Turner, who lives in another part of the city, said his 87-year-old mother started calling 911 from the complex at 8 p.m. when the water started rising in her apartment. He said he and his brother tried to rush to her rescue, but the water was too high.
By close to midnight, the water was up to her neck, he said. Rescuers finally were able to cut through the floor of the apartment above and pull her to safety.
“She lost everything,” Turner said as he headed to a bank to get money to buy his mother some clothes and shoes.
Elsewhere in New Jersey, flooding killed two people in Hillsborough, two in Bridgewater, and one in Milford Borough, where authorities found a man’s body a car buried up to its hood in dirt and rocks, authorities said.
The ferocious storm also spawned tornadoes, including one that tore off part of a high school roof in suburban Philadelphia and another that ripped apart homes and toppled silos in Mullica Hill, New Jersey, south of Philadelphia.
“It just came through and ripped,” said resident Jeanine Zubrzycki, 33, who hid in her basement with her three children as the house shook and lights flickered. When the danger passed, they went upstairs and saw a neighbor’s house had been destroyed.
“And then you could just hear people crying,” said Zubrzycki, 33, whose own home was damaged but liveable.
Record flooding along the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania inundated homes, highways and commercial buildings, even as meteorologists warned that rivers likely won’t crest for a few more days. The riverside community of Manayunk remained largely under water.
The Schuyilkill reached levels not seen in over 100 years in Philadelphia, where firefighters were still getting calls about minor building collapses and people stuck in flooded cars Thursday morning, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said. The managers of a 941-unit apartment complex near the river ordered residents to evacuate, citing “deteriorating” conditions after water rushed into the parking garage and pool areas.
In suburban Bucks County, rushing floodwaters pinned a rescue boat against a bridge pier, and several firefighters had to be rescued themselves and were taken to a hospital for evaluation, state emergency management director Randy Padfield said.
A flash flood warning continued into Thursday in New England, where an on-duty Connecticut state trooper was swept away in his cruiser and later taken to a hospital, state police and local authorities said. Authorities used boats to rescue 18 people from a flooded neighborhood in Plainville, Connecticut, and 15 people — including one who uses a wheelchair — from a flooded complex in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. A road in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, crumbled.
Parts of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where 2,200 people died after an infamous dam failure in 1889, were evacuated for a time Wednesday after water reached dangerous levels at a dam near the city. An official said later Wednesday that the water levels near the dam were receding.
In Frederick County, Maryland, first responders used a boat to rescue 10 children and a driver from a school bus caught in rising flood waters. The county’s school superintendent apologized for not dismissing students earlier, The Frederick News-Post reported.
The Atlantic hurricane season is far from over. Larry became a hurricane Thursday morning, forecast to rapidly intensify. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said it’s moving west but remains far from any coast.