NEW YORK — Ida had long since lost its hurricane status, but the storm that powered down New Orleans and forced thousands from their homes last weekend doused the New York-New Jersey area with near-biblical bursts of rain Wednesday night, killing more than 40 people, paralyzing transportation and raising alarms about the region's ability to handle a new wave of intense weather.
People drowned in their homes and perished in cars stuck on flooded roads. In the Flushing section of Queens in New York City, a family of three, including a 2-year-old, got trapped in their flooded basement apartment, called for help but died before it could arrive. Not far away, in Jamaica, two more people died when the building they lived in partially collapsed as it filled with rainwater.
In the 1,300 miles of Ida’s beeline from Louisiana’s Gulf Coast to New York City, the storm morphed from Category 4 hurricane into a sprawling mess of wind and water, but it packed an even deadlier wallop in its late phase, dumping more than three inches of rain on New York’s Central Park in just one hour, a record and a deluge so intense that basements and tunnels filled up in minutes. There were 23 deaths in New Jersey alone, the state’s governor said.
Throughout the area, thousands of people on their way home Wednesday night got stuck in trains, planes and cars that were suddenly engulfed. On New York City’s F train, Jessica Guillaume, heading home from her job checking fabric quality in Manhattan’s Garment District, found herself spending three harrowing hours in a stalled subway car with three other drenched and freezing people, none of whom could make out the rare announcements on the train’s public-address system.
“They say we New Yorkers are not very friendly, but we were really looking out and worrying about each other,” Guillaume said Thursday, finally dry and home. “We only had each other.”
On her 10th day in office, New York’s new governor, Kathy Hochul (D), said the storm constituted “the first time we’ve had a flash flood event of this proportion. We haven’t experienced this before but we should expect it the next time.”
She said she would push to assess the state’s preparedness: “What did we know? When did we know what we had? . . . I deployed resources yesterday morning, but we did not know that between 8:50 and 9:50 p.m. last night, that the heavens would literally open up and bring Niagara Falls-level water to the streets of New York.”
Ida’s collision with the Gulf Coast, the wildfires in the West and the flash floods in the New York area send a clear message, President Biden said in a midday TV address: “These extreme storms of the climate crisis are here,” posing “one of the great challenges of our time,” and government needs to make electrical grids, pipelines and other infrastructure more resilient, he said.
The torrential downpours on September’s first day hit New York City after August produced more than 10 inches of rainfall, half a foot above normal, saturating the ground and priming the region for major flooding from this hefty dousing of rain, meteorologists said. Thursday’s mess was a result of the combination of that softened ground and the extraordinary rain volume produced by the collision of the storm’s tropical moisture with a cold front in the Northeast.
The 7.1 inches that swamped Central Park on Wednesday — the fifth-wettest day on record there — and the record 8.4 inches that doused Newark were amounts that meteorologists expected to fall once every 200 to 500 years.
In the past two weeks, New York City has had three of its 20 heaviest one-hour downpours on record. In Passaic, N.J., the Passaic River overflowed its banks and merged with city streets, leaving fish flopping and dying on Eighth Street.
“Global warming is upon us,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) “When you get two record rainfalls in a week, it’s not just coincidence.”
The storm that hit the United States as Hurricane Ida took a route that roughly tracked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to New York. It had a relatively easy passage through the Mid-Atlantic states, where the weakened storm dropped a few brief but impressive downpours and spun off several destructive tornadoes, entering the Northeast as primarily a rain event — but one of historic intensity.
On the way, at least three tornadoes touched down in Maryland, including one that wrecked roofs and ripped through buildings in Anne Arundel County, where 13 structures in Annapolis were condemned. One twister prompted the Northeast’s first-ever “tornado emergency,” issued for Trenton, N.J. Another destroyed big houses in Mullica Hill, N.J., about 10 miles south of Philadelphia.
In the Philadelphia suburb of Montgomery County, officials were investigating three storm-related deaths, said Valerie Arkoosh, chairwoman of the county commission — two apparently from drowning and one from structural damage.
Between 6 and 10 inches of rain fell there, causing the National Weather Service to declare a rare flash flood emergency that urged residents in dire terms to “SEEK HIGHER GROUND NOW!” Despite the warning, the agency reported that first responders answered more than 30 calls for high-water rescues.
Most of the deaths in New York City occurred in Queens, where police found a family of three unresponsive in their flooded basement apartment in a multifamily house at the bottom of a hill in Flushing.
The three — a 50-year-old man, a 48-year-old woman and a 2-year-old boy — were pronounced dead at the scene.
“That family was trapped and were killed,” said City Council member James Van Bramer (D), standing outside the row of brick houses, many of which suffered flooded basements. “It’s just devastating . . . It begs the question: What do we need to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
Floodwater appears to have collected where the hill meets an embankment of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. “The water levels in the neighborhood rose to really frightening levels, flooding all of these basements,” Van Bramer said. Neighbors said the water in their basements reached their ceilings.
A few houses uphill from where the family died, Taiba Tahera said her landlord, Samsul Chowdhury, invited her upstairs for the night, out of her basement apartment, which also flooded.
In Geetha Kuttikan’s house, “we could not even look outside” during the storm, she said. Inside, the water rose above her ankles. In her 31 years in the neighborhood, she said, she had never seen anything like this.
The downpour caused at least two partial building collapses in Queens. In Jamaica, firefighters found a 22-year-old man and a 45-year-old woman inside a building where police responded to calls about flooding. The man died at the scene and the woman was taken to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead, police said.
Gilbert Dofredo, who lives two houses down from the collapsed building, said the street was flooded and at least a dozen houses had water in their basements. The water was knee-high in his home, he said.
“Firemen are here and they are pumping out the water from the basements right now,” said Dofredo, 80. “I’m still waiting for them to pump my water from my basement.”
Police crisscrossed the borough through the night, finding a 48-year-old woman in her home near Forest Hills, an 86-year-old woman in Elmhurst and another victim in the back of a car on the Grand Central Parkway. They all died.
In Elizabeth, N.J., a city spokeswoman said four people, including a family of three, were found dead at an apartment complex across the street from a flooded firehouse. All of the deaths were “definitely linked to the flooding,” the official said.
A 70-year-old man from Clifton, N.J., died in Passaic when his vehicle sank into the floodwaters, family members told The Washington Post. Firefighters rescued the man’s 66-year-old wife and 25-year-old son but couldn’t reach the father in time, Passaic Mayor Hector C. Lora said.
“Having seen the impact of a storm no one expected that devastated the area the way that it did, I would not be surprised if we find additional bodies,” Lora said.
On Dryden Court, a dead-end street that sits just above sea level in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island, Ida’s aftermath added to a month of disaster. Three storms in less than a month had left basements flooded, filling some to the ceiling.
On Thursday afternoon, residents dried out flooded cars or worked to draw water and sewage from their houses out to the street. Sewers in the area had reversed, shooting water several feet into the air.
John DeVito, 63, and Dom Rogo, 52, have lived on Dryden Court for 30 years.
“I’ve never seen water this high,” DeVito said. Inside his flooded house, the stairs to the basement became detached at the bottom and began to float horizontally. DeVito spent the morning emptying eight feet of water from his house into the street.
Masie Lam, 50, who lives near the street’s lowest point, piled ruined belongings outside her house. She said she had no home insurance; her policy was canceled after repeated claims for flooding.
Marion Murphy, 54, watched as her son’s bed floated close to the ceiling of his basement room. A garden hose slowly emptied sewage and water from her basement. Four feet done, one more to go. But how long would it stay dry?
“It’s just getting worse,” Murphy, defeated, said of the flooding. “I don’t know.”
Through much of Thursday, the flooding kept many people in the region stuck at home as airports canceled flights, Amtrak canceled all service between Washington, D.C., and Boston, and the water rose above car roofs on highway underpasses in the Bronx, Queens and parts of suburban New Jersey, where the state also suspended almost all rail service.
In Wilmington, Del., the Brandywine Creek crested at 23 feet, its highest level on record, inundating parts of the city. Firefighters shuttled along residential streets in airboats and inflatable Zodiacs, helping residents out of second-story windows and rescuing about 200 people, seven of whom were hospitalized with injuries, none critical, authorities said.
“In my 28 years, we’ve had flooding throughout my time, but never to this magnitude,” said Wilmington Fire Chief John Looney.
Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) said that as “the lowest-lying state in the country, obviously with sea rise, we’re going to continue to see problems.” Wilmington had invested in infrastructure to protect flood-prone areas, but this storm flooded less-prepared areas. Carney, who lives nearby, pointed to a playground that had previously been moved to higher ground as a defense against flooding. It was now underwater.
“We’ll bring it back,” he said of the neighborhood, “but it does make you think, long-term, what are the realistic options for development here?”
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) declared a state of emergency and the state police said a 26-year veteran sergeant was killed when floodwaters swept away his vehicle in Woodbury. Col. Stavros Mellekas said the sergeant, who was not identified, sent a distress alert at 3:30 a.m., but rescuers couldn’t reach him in time and found him in the Pomperaug River about 9 a.m. Thursday. The officer died en route to Yale New Haven Hospital, police said.
New York City’s subway system gradually edged back toward full service as crews worked round-the-clock to repair shorted track signals, remove debris that had floated into the tunnels, and pump out raging rivers of storm water. But commuters still faced limited transit service, and highways that were flooded or blocked by abandoned vehicles.
After Hurricane Sandy flooded the newly opened South Ferry subway station in Manhattan in 2012, it took five years for the station to be repaired and reopened. On Thursday, it was once again only partially operational.
A tourist who approached an information booth to find out how to get to the Upper East Side was offered a curt recommendation: “Take the bus.”
At a newsstand in the Financial District, salesman Haresh Patel, 39, said it usually takes him an hour to get from his home in Queens to his stand. On Thursday, it took three hours.
While some people who spent the evening at home watched water pour into their houses, Jessica Guillaume, 31, was returning from work, traveling from Manhattan to Middle Village in Queens. She usually rides the express bus, but on this night she’d stayed in Midtown to have dinner with a couple of friends, and by 9 p.m., when she headed home, the subway was her only option.
The F train ground to a halt between the Queensbridge and Jackson Heights stations, and Guillaume sat for more than an hour, drenched and freezing from the car’s air conditioning, waiting for some word — anything. Finally, a couple of announcements came over the PA system, but in classic New York subway style, the only thing any of the four passengers in the car could make out was, “Mmphlumma glumph,” or something very much like that.
After more than an hour, a clearer voice said something about signal problems from the flooding and trains stuck ahead of them. Three hours into the ordeal, the train lurched backward and delivered its passengers to the previous station.
Finally aboveground again, Guillaume tried to find a ride-share to her house, a 10-minute drive away. But this was a surge in more than one way, and Uber proposed to charge her $100 for the ride. She flitted back and forth between competing ride apps and finally found an Uber Black car for $60. Half an hour later, she was on her way home.
Guillaume took Thursday off, too exhausted to work. “The one time I took the subway, and this happens,” she said.
Guarino and Bump reported from New York; Berman and Fisher reported from Washington. Will Oremus in Wilmington, Del., and Jason Samenow and Paulina Firozi in Washington contributed to this report.
Hurricane Ida: What you need to know
New Orleans: Then and now photos, 16 years after Katrina
From the archive: In the history of hurricane names, ‘I’ stands for infamous