A massive storm that began late Wednesday caught the north-eastern US by surprise, trapping people in basements and cars, sending tornadoes ripping across the ground and floods surging through city streets, leading to devastating loss of life but also hundreds of frantic and heroic rescues.
Three days after Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana and parts of Mississippi, the huge storm system, though no longer a hurricane, roared across the US and dumped record-breaking rain, including a month’s worth in New York’s Central Park in a matter of hours, and spawned at least seven destructive tornadoes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Ida’s remnants brought six to eight inches of rain from Philadelphia to Connecticut. In Manhattan alone, the storm set an hourly record of 3.15in, breaking the 1.94in set by Tropical Storm Henri on 21 August.
“We saw a lot of pain,” New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, said on Friday morning. Then he added: “But so many people did extraordinary things, our first responders heroically made hundreds and hundreds of rescues” in dangerous flash flood and wind conditions.
Across the region, at least 48 people in at least five states have died, many after drowning in their homes and cars in a sudden storm of an intensity officials admitted they were not expecting.
In New York City, at least 13 people were killed, according to police. One died in a car and 11 in flooded basement apartments that often serve as relatively affordable – but sometimes illegally constructed – homes in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.
At one point on Wednesday night, New Yorkers were receiving ear-piercing automatic alerts on their phones warning of a tornado approaching and recommending people hide in their basements – while flash flooding was pouring into many basements and drowning people.
Officials said at least five people died in Pennsylvania, including one killed by a falling tree and another who drowned in his car after helping his wife to escape.
In Connecticut, a state police sergeant perished after his cruiser was swept away. A 19-year-old man was killed in flooding at an apartment complex in Rockville, Maryland, police said.
As Ida’s remnants triggered deluges across the region, numerous daring rescues were made. In New York City, there were hundreds of rescues by boat and with first responders wading and climbing to the rescue in treacherous conditions after dark. A video online showed police wading in waist-deep water to rescue a delivery driver stuck in floodwater in Central Park.
According to police, more than 800 people were rescued across New York City’s subway system, where underground trains were under cascades of water and stations were partially submerged.
In Paterson, New Jersey, firefighters used jackhammers and electric saws to cut a hole in the Passaic River bridge and rescue a man from rising floodwaters. “The water was rising so fast that they were fighting against the clock to save this guy,” said the Paterson fire chief, Brian McDermott.
Authorities also used boats to rescue people in Rhode Island and parts of Pennsylvania where they pulled people from rooftops. In Maryland, rescuers pulled 10 children and a driver from a school bus that was caught in rising floodwaters.
In addition to devastating floods, Ida also triggered at least seven tornadoes, including one that spun at 150mph. The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado which struck Mullica Hill, New Jersey on Wednesday night tore a 12.6-mile path. On average, tornado paths are only about 1.5 miles long.
As the region continues to mourn and clean up Ida’s damage, officials are attributing the deadly hurricane to the climate crisis.
“These things are coming more frequently, they’re more intense, sadly more deadly, and we’ve got to update our playbook,” said Murphy of New Jersey.
“Records were broken, but what is fascinating is that the records that they broke were literally set a week before,” said the New York governor, Kathy Hochul. “That’s what we’re dealing with now, my friends.” She added: “It’s happening right now. It’s not a future threat.”