Updated: September 3, 2021 11:48:33 am
Written by: Andy Newman
Three days after Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana, its weakened remnants tore into the Northeast and claimed at least 43 lives across New York, New Jersey and two other states in an onslaught that ended Thursday and served as an ominous sign of climate change’s capacity to wreak new kinds of havoc.
The last storm this deadly in the region, Sandy in 2012, did its damage mostly through tidal surges. But most of this storm’s toll — both in human life and property damage — reflected the extent to which the sheer volume of rain simply overwhelmed the infrastructure of a region built for a different meteorological era.
Officials warned that the unthinkable was quickly becoming the norm.
“There are no more cataclysmic ‘unforeseeable’ events,” Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said Thursday morning. “We need to foresee these in advance and be prepared.”
The rain was shocking in its intensity. More than 3 inches fell in a single hour in Central Park on Wednesday night, shattering a record that had been set just days before by Tropical Storm Henri. Across the region, more than half a foot of rain fell within a few hours and several places in New York and New Jersey reported more than 9 inches.
The deluge turned streets into rivers across the Northeast and trapped people in flooded basement apartments. Emergency workers in boats rescued people stranded on the roofs of their cars.
The storm spawned tornadoes that reduced houses in a southern New Jersey township to splinters, cut power to more than 200,000 homes and in Philadelphia sent the Schuylkill to near-record levels and submerged part of a highway.
Twenty-three people died in New Jersey, including at least three people who were submerged in their cars and four in an apartment complex in Elizabeth, across from a flooded firehouse. Fifteen people died in New York state, most of them in basement apartments in New York City. Four people died in Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, at least three by drowning. And a state police sergeant in Connecticut died after his car was swept away by floodwaters.
The storm also crippled mass transit. Much of New York City’s subway system was partly or wholly suspended for most of Thursday; the storm shut down commuter rail lines, grounded planes and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from stalled trains.
And it left Americans wondering how a storm that had slammed Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane and left the power grid there in shambles had somehow grown to its most deadly after being downgraded to a tropical depression — 1,200 miles after breaching the Gulf Coast, where it left 16 people dead, including 12 in Louisiana.
In New York City, the storm’s toll reflected not just an ancient and inadequate drainage system but entrenched inequality: At least 11 of the 13 people who died in the city perished in basement apartments, most of them in Queens, in immigrant-heavy neighbourhoods that had weathered the worst of the city’s coronavirus outbreak. Across the borough, tens of thousands of people unable to afford the city’s exorbitant rents seek shelter in underground dwellings that often skirt or ignore safety and building codes.
As night fell Wednesday and the skies split open, New Yorkers’ phones lit up with a series of increasingly urgent advisories — warnings of flash floods and tornadoes, culminating in a “flash flood emergency,” something the National Weather Service had never issued for New York City, warning of imminent “severe threat to human life.” The imperatives were potentially confusing: Do not leave your home. Get to higher ground.
By then, the streets and basements were filling up.
In Woodside, Queens, Choi Sledge received a frantic call at 9:30 p.m. It came from inside the house, from a woman who lives in the basement apartment.
“She said, ‘The water is coming in right now,’ and I say, ‘Get out! Get to the third floor!’” Sledge said.
The bodies of the woman, her husband and her toddler son were found in the basement. The building’s certificate of occupancy showed that the basement had not been approved for residential use.
Heavier downpours are a signature feature of global warming, because warmer air can hold more moisture. Climate scientists say that the Northeast has seen 50 per cent more rainfall during the heaviest storms, compared with the first half of the 20th century.
Yet the severe loss of life nonetheless raised questions of what could have been done to prevent it.
Hochul said that officials were caught off guard by the ferocity of the rainfall. “We did not know that between 8:50 pm and 9:50 pm last night, that the heavens would literally open up and bring Niagara Falls-level water to the streets of New York,” she said at a briefing in Queens with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Chuck Schumer. “Could that have been anticipated? I want to find out.”
De Blasio said the city had been misled by the forecast. “The report was 3 to 6 inches over the course of a whole day, which was not a particularly problematic amount,” de Blasio said during the briefing Thursday. “That turned into the biggest single hour of rainfall in New York City history.”
Part of the reason more people died in New York than in the South is that residents of coastal Louisiana have grown used to evacuation orders and have shown willingness to abandon their threatened homes, however reluctantly. Evacuation is an unfamiliar phenomenon in New York, and in any case, unlike during Superstorm Sandy, when people in low-lying neighbourhoods were ordered to leave, no formal evacuation orders were issued Wednesday.
A further complication is that evacuation is more difficult when it’s not clear where to go. With this storm, inland, elevated areas that had been immune to serious flooding suddenly weren’t.
“There’s no other way to put it,” New Jersey Gov. Philip D. Murphy said as he stood before the wreckage of homes in Mullica Hill, an exurb of Philadelphia, that were flattened by a tornado. “The world is changing.”