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, filling low-lying apartments with water and turning roads into car-swallowing canals.
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 26 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 eight 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. An on-duty state trooper in Connecticut was swept away in his cruiser and later taken to a hospital, state police and local authorities said.
In New York City, Deborah Torres said water rapidly filled her first-floor Queens apartment to her knees as her landlord frantically urged her neighbors below — who included a baby — to get out, she said. But the water was rushing 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 lost most of the storm's winds but kept its soggy core, then merged with a more traditional storm front and dropped an onslaught of rain on the Interstate 95 corridor, meteorologists said. The situation 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 (7.5 to 15 cm) 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 (5 cm) in one hour during Tropical Storm Henri on Aug. 21.
The storm ultimately dumped over 9 inches (23 cm) 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.
In the nation's most populous city, 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 (2 meters) 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 ripped apart homes and toppled silos in Mullica Hill, New Jersey, south of Philadelphia.
Resident Ashley Thomas, her husband and their two young children rushed to their basement after hearing sirens. But after waiting for 15 minutes with debris falling on them, they bolted to the yard, said Thomas, 37. She broke several toes and has a bruise on her shoulder but was grateful her family and neighbors survived.
Record flooding along the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania inundated homes and commercial buildings, swamped highways, submerged cars and disrupted rail service in the Philadelphia area. In a tweet, city officials predicted “historic flooding” on Thursday as river levels continue to rise. 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.
Heavy winds and drenching rains punched a hole in the roof of a U.S. Postal Service building in New Jersey. Rain rushed through a terminal at Newark International Airport Wednesday and threatened to overrun a dam in Pennsylvania. Meteorologists warned that rivers likely won’t crest for a few more days, raising the possibility of more widespread flooding.
Rescues took place all over New York City as its 8.8 million people saw much worse flooding than from Henri, which was followed by two weeks of wild and sometimes deadly weather across the nation. Wildfires are threatening Lake Tahoe, Tropical Storm Henri struck the Northeast 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.
A flash flood warning continued into Thursday in New England. 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 into a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm by Sunday. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said it’s moving west but remains far from any coast.