Flash flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida killed at least 41 people in the New York area overnight into Thursday, including several who perished in their basements during the “historic” weather event that officials blamed on climate change.
Record rainfall, which prompted an unprecedented flash flood emergency warning for New York City, turned streets into rivers and shut down subway services as water cascaded down platforms onto tracks.
“I’m 50 years old and I’ve never seen that much rain ever,” said Metodija Mihajlov whose basement of his Manhattan restaurant was flooded with three inches of water.
“It was like living in the jungle, like tropical rain. Unbelievable. Everything is so strange this year,” he told AFP.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled at LaGuardia and JFK airports, as well as at Newark, where video showed a terminal inundated by rainwater.
“We’re all in this together. The nation is ready to help,” President Joe Biden said ahead of a trip Friday to the southern state of Louisiana, where Ida earlier destroyed buildings and left more than a million homes without power.
Flooding closed major roads across New Jersey and New York boroughs including Manhattan, The Bronx and Queens, submerging cars and forcing the fire department to rescue hundreds of people.
At least 23 people died in New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy told reporters.
“The majority of these deaths were individuals who got caught in their vehicles,” he said.
Twelve died in New York City, including 11 who could not escape their basements, police said. The victims ranged from the ages of 2 to 86.
“Among the people MOST at risk during flash floods here are those living in off-the-books basement dwellings that don’t meet the safety codes necessary to save lives,” lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
“These are working class, immigrant, and low-income people & families,” she added.
Three also died in the New York suburb of Westchester while another three died in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, a local official confirmed.
Ida blazed a trail of destruction north after slamming into Louisiana over the weekend, bringing severe flooding and tornadoes.
“We’re enduring an historic weather event tonight with record-breaking rain across the city, brutal flooding and dangerous conditions on our roads,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said late Wednesday.
State emergencies were declared in New York and New Jersey while the National Weather Service issued its first-ever emergency flash flood warning for New York City, urging residents to move to higher ground.
“You do not know how deep the water is and it is too dangerous,” the New York branch of the National Weather Service (NWS) said in a tweet.
The NWS recorded 3.15 inches (80 millimetres) of rain in Central Park in just an hour — beating a record set just last month during Storm Henri.
The US Open was also halted as howling wind and rain blew under the corners of the Louis Armstrong Stadium roof.
Lingering tornado threat
New Yorkers woke to clear blue skies Thursday as the city edged back to life but signs of the previous night’s carnage weren’t far away: residents moved fallen tree branches from roads as subway services slowly resumed.
Around 98,000 homes in Pennsylvania, 60,000 in New Jersey and 40,000 in New York were without power, according to the website poweroutage.us.
It is rare for such storms to strike America‘s northeastern seaboard and comes as the surface layer of oceans warms due to climate change.
The warming is causing cyclones to become more powerful and carry more water, posing an increasing threat to the world’s coastal communities, scientists say.
“Global warming is upon us and it’s going to get worse and worse and worse unless we do something about it,” said Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.
In Annapolis, 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Washington, a tornado ripped up trees and toppled electricity poles.
The NWS warned the threat of tornadoes would linger, with tornado watches in effect for parts of southern Connecticut, northern New Jersey, and southern New York as Ida tracked north through New England Thursday.