As Ida’s deadly waters receded Thursday from subway stations and roads, playgrounds and apartments, stunned residents of New York and New Jersey confronted their vulnerability now the old norms of weather no longer apply.
The remnants of a hurricane that first hammered distant New Orleans unleashed a torrent intense enough to kill at least 40 people across the Northeast, paralyze the nation’s largest and wealthiest city, halt its lifeblood transit system and conjure a future where residents and the economy are constrained by recurrent disasters.
In New York and its suburbs — which rebuilt power grids, subways and tunnels after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy flooded lower Manhattan — roads were closed, commuter rail was hobbled and hundreds of flights were canceled.
Lasting damage to infrastructure appeared far less this time. Only 170,000 homes and businesses remained without electricity by noon Thursday, according to PowerOutage.us. Airports were open, though at reduced capacity. Officials promised to have subways running at something like normal service by the evening.
But the storm and its death toll are grim reminders that as the climate changes, weather once considered freakish strikes with regularity, threatening the viability of all coastal economic centers.
“The future threat we spoke about in dire terms, that future is now — it’s happening,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a briefing Thursday. “We’re losing lives, we’re losing property and we can’t continue down this path.”
The summer already brought deadly flooding in Tennessee and Germany, heat waves shattering all-time temperature records in western Canada, and wildfires raging in California and Greece.
Ida’s parting hit on New York and the Northeast likely pushed the storm’s overall economic losses and damages into the $50 billion to $60 billion range, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research.
That would place it fifth on the list of the most costly hurricanes to hit the U.S., behind Katrina, Harvey, Maria and Sandy.
Its path through the region had been predicted for days, but its strength was a surprise. The storm collided with the jet stream at the hottest time of the day, when the air was already unstable, said Zack Taylor, a meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.
An area from eastern Pennsylvania to southern New England, including New York, got as much as 20.3 centimeters of rain in a few hours. In Central Park, 8 centimeters fell in one hour, setting a record, Taylor said.
“It was the perfect set-up for extreme rainfall, and — unfortunately — it happened over one of the most populous corridors of the United States,” Taylor said.
Most residents didn’t see it coming, sometimes with fatal consequences.
On the Gulf Coast, Ida killed at least five people. In the Northeast, a weakened storm killed at least eight times that many.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio early Thursday said the storm killed people “who were alive at this exact moment yesterday, with no idea that such a horrible fate could befall them.” In the borough of Queens, three members of the same family died in their basement apartment.
By evening, officials said the city’s death toll had reached 13, while noting that the numbers were preliminary. Eleven fatalities were in Queens and two were in Brooklyn, NYPD Chief of Department Rodney Harrison said at a briefing late Thursday.
The department’s Emergency Service Unit, which evacuated more than 800 people from the subway, also made 166 rescues in response to distress calls, Harrison said. While the unit constantly trains for disasters, this rainfall event was unprecedented, said Harry Wedin, chief of special operations, who oversees the ESU.
“Preparing for these storms is something we take very seriously,” Wedin said. “These storms are getting worse and worse.”
In Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, where many roads remained submerged, Governor Phil Murphy said the storm had claimed at least 23 lives across his state. Most died in vehicles, he said. Four people were found dead in an Elizabeth apartment complex. Residents said Thursday that the water rose rapidly.
“It was terrible,” said Yvette Baker, 34. “The water was so high. They had one rowboat trying to save all these people. People were screaming for help.”
Officials in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, reported three deaths. In Connecticut, a state police sergeant was swept away by flood waters.
Twenty one miles outside Manhattan in Nutley, New Jersey, a town of about 28,000, a stretch of the business district became inundated as a tributary to the Passaic River overflowed its banks.
Franklin Avenue, lined with Italian bakeries and pizzerias, doctors’ offices and a Dollar Tree, became a raging river, stranding motorists, sending debris crashing through the window of a vacant pork store and flooding businesses.
Mark Vitiello, 51, showed up at his bakery at 3 a.m. to find an abandoned car in his entrance and about a foot of water in his kitchen. “I’ve been here my whole life and this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Vitiello, the third generation of his family to own the local landmark.
Some in low-lying areas fled their homes. Danny Calle, 40, and his 3-month-old daughter, Jolene, were rescued by emergency workers in an inflatable raft who came to their flooded Cranford, New Jersey, home about 10 a.m. Thursday.
“It happened so quick,” said the U.S. Customs and Border Protection employee. “I’m grabbing diapers, grabbing formula, grabbing onesies. I’m a new dad, so I’m just grabbing everything.”
The storm flooded the basements of many businesses and homes in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, said Chi Osse, a Democratic candidate for City Council. “It is mostly black and brown folks or working-class folks who are dealing with the flooding right now,” he said.
With homes and belongings soaked and few resources, they face a rough recovery, he said. “Many of our residents who live in basements have flooded homes,” he said. “Their items are ruined.”
The Thursday morning commute brought idled trains and confusion. At Newark Liberty International Airport, workers cleaned up the flood damage in Terminal B. At Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, all Metro-North Railroad trains were cancelled in both directions.
Wanda Campbell of Brooklyn, was trying to get to White Plains. She had been waiting for a train for hours but said she might just head home.
At Penn Station, attorney Matthew Marino was trying to get to Staten Island for court, meaning he needed to catch a downtown subway to reach the ferry. “I did not think the subways would be this bad,” said Marino, 54, “They have no idea what, when or how service will be restored.”
Across the region, the storm’s battering created doubt and wonder about what would come next. Rachael Francique from East Flatbush in Brooklyn stopped at the edge of Prospect Park’s Playground Three on Thursday morning to see it lying under three feet of water.
“This is New York City?” she said to her 14-month-old. “It looks like a lake. This does not look healthy at all.”
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