Police went door to door in search of more possible victims and drew up lists of the missing as the death toll rose to 49 on Friday in the catastrophic flooding set off across the Northeast by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
The disaster underscored with heartbreaking clarity how vulnerable the U.S. is to the extreme weather that climate change is bringing. In its wake, officials weighed far-reaching new measures to save lives in future storms.
More than three days after the hurricane blew ashore in Louisiana, Ida’s rainy remains hit the Northeast with surprising fury on Wednesday and Thursday, submerging cars, swamping subway stations and basement apartments and drowning scores of people in five states.
Intense rain overwhelmed urban drainage systems never meant to handle so much water in such a short time – a record 3 inches in just an hour in New York.
On Friday, communities laboured to haul away ruined vehicles, pump out homes and highways, clear away muck and other debris, restore mass transit and make sure everyone caught in the storm was accounted for.
Even after clouds gave way to blue skies, some rivers and streams were still rising. Part of the swollen Passaic River in New Jersey wasn’t expected to crest until Friday night.
“People think it’s beautiful out, which it is, that this thing’s behind us and we can go back to business as usual, and we’re not there yet,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy warned.
At least 25 people perished in New Jersey, the most of any state. Most drowned after their vehicles were caught in flash floods. At least six people were missing, Murphy said.
In New York City, 11 people died when they were unable to escape rising water in their low-lying apartments.
New York’s subways were running with delays or not at all. North of the city, commuter train service remained suspended or severely curtailed. In the Hudson Valley, train tracks were covered in several feet of mud.
Floodwaters and a falling tree also took lives in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York.
While the storm ravaged homes and the electrical grid in Louisiana and Mississippi, leaving more than 800,000 people without power as of Friday, it seemingly proved more lethal over 1,000 miles away in the Northeast, where the death toll outstripped the 13 lives reported lost so far in the Deep South.
Ida stands as the deadliest hurricane in the U.S. in four years.
In a second wave of calamity in the Northeast, fires broke out in swamped homes and businesses, many of them inaccessible to firefighters because of floodwaters. Authorities suspected gas leaks triggered by the flooding fed the flames.
A banquet hall in Manville, New Jersey, exploded in flames around 2 a.m. Friday. Its owner, Jayesh Mehta, said he felt helpless and heartbroken looking at pictures and videos of his burning business.
“I don’t know what to do and how to deal with something like this,” Mehta told NJ Advance Media.
In Philadelphia, part of the crosstown Vine Street Expressway remained covered with water as people in neighbourhoods along the swollen Schuylkill River started cleaning up and assessing the damage. The river reached its highest level since 1902. Crews worked seven large pumps to drain the flooded expressway, with an inch-thick layer of mud left where the road had dried.
Officials said they wanted to get the highway reopened by Saturday afternoon, when thousands of people are expected to flock to the area for the two-day Made in America music festival, which Mayor Jim Kenney was adamant will go on as planned.
In New York City, teams of police officers knocked on doors to check for anyone left behind. Police reviewed emergency calls from when the storm hit to pinpoint where people may have been in harm’s way. Calls to the city’s 911 system peaked at 12 times above normal Wednesday night.
“I don’t have an exact answer regarding how many people are actually missing,” Rodney Harrison, chief of department for the New York City police, said Thursday night, “but we are going to continue to work hard throughout the day, throughout the evening to make sure we identify everyone’s location.”
In Wilmington, Delaware, crews rescued more than 200 people after the Brandywine River reached record levels, swamping roads, bridges and homes. No major injuries were reported.
Ida came ashore in Louisiana on Sunday tied as the fifth-strongest storm to ever hit the U.S. mainland, then moved north. Forecasters had warned of hazardous flooding, but the ferocity of the storm caught the nation’s most densely populated metropolitan corridor by surprise.
Leaders in some states pledged to examine whether anything could be done to prevent a catastrophe like this from happening again.
New Jersey and New York have both spent billions of dollars improving flood defenses after Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, but much of that work was focused primarily on protecting communities from seawater, not rain.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said the region needs to turn its attention to storm water systems unprepared to handle a future of more frequent flash flooding because of climate change.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city will work to clear people from roads, subway trains and basement apartments in advance of major rainstorms, and will ban travel as it does during major snowstorms. He said the city will also send cellphone alerts warning people to leave basement apartments and dispatch city workers to get them to shelters.
“It’s not just saying to people you have to get out of your apartment,” de Blasio said. “It’s going door to door with our first responders and other city agencies to get people out.”
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