Not since Superstorm Sandy ploughed into the New York area almost a decade ago, has the city been rocked by such a brutal and deadly storm.
The remnants of Hurricane Ida wreaked a devastating path of destruction across the Northeast on Wednesday night leaving at least 43 people dead, including a two-year-old boy.
A number of people died after being trapped in submerged basement apartments or in cars swept away in flash floods.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said that 23 people had died in his state, while officials said that 15 were killed in New York, four in Pennsylvania and one in Connecticut.
In Elizabeth, New Jersey, five people were found dead after an apartment complex flooded, according to a city spokesperson. A 70-year-old man died when his vehicle was swept away by flood waters in Passaic, New Jersey after firefighters in scuba gear managed to pull his wife and son from the car.
The 120-year-old New York subway system is struggling to restart after torrents of water gushed over carriages and down platforms. Major roadways like the FDR which wraps around the east side Manhattan and the Bronx River Parkway were clogged with abandoned vehicles.
Hundreds of flights have been delayed at New York’s LaGuardia and JFK airports while at Newark, the baggage claim area filled up with water. At the US Open tennis championships in Queens, rainfall cascaded through the roofed stadium.
Tornadoes tore through neighbourhoods in New Jersey and Maryland, ripping apart homes while in the Philadelphia suburbs the Schuylkill River burst its banks leaving neighbourhoods underwater.
For the first time ever, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency for New York City and northeast New Jersey: “Move to higher ground now! This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation.”
In Central Park, more than three inches of rain fell in just one hour, breaking a 94-year record. “Last night’s storm was horrifying and unlike anything our city has ever faced,” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote on Twitter. “The sudden brutality of these storms is not a coincidence. Climate change is REAL and we have to act NOW before more lives are lost.”
“These things are coming more frequently, they’re more intense, sadly more deadly and we’ve got to update our playbook,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told Good Morning America.
The bright sunshine and temperatures in the high seventies on Thursday belied the apocalyptic scenes that had ripped through the city overnight.
In the Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn, residents picked through damage and business owners got to work on the monumental clean-up.
At Tony’s Pizza, one of the oldest Italian diners in the neighbourhood, staff swept water from the dining room and through the front door to the street.
An outdoor dining area at Ecuadorian eatery, El Encebollado de Victor, was overwhelmed with debris. Across the street at Blue Koala Cafe, staff dumped gallons of water from the cafe’s basement flooded into the street in between serving customers.
On Knickerbocker Avenue, currents of water had moved several cars on surrounding streets away from curbs, turning them around and landing them on sidewalks.
Local resident Justin Brooks watched floods pour down his street on Wednesday night. “It was bad,” Mr Brooks told The Independent. “I pumped water out of my first-floor apartment last night.”
When he left for work on Thursday morning he found his Toyota Prius had floated away down the street.
By the time he found his car, the windows had fogged up with moisture, and water had nearly reached the top of the cabin – humid, reeking of mildew and still soaking. His car’s engine didn’t turn on. “Oh f***,” he added.
In Crown Heights, a neighbourhood with some of the highest points in Brooklyn, residents on top floors woke up to stagnant water in basements or on bottom floors.
At First Corinthian Baptist Church in Bed-Stuy, where lower floors flooded, one parishioner said: “I’m just worried about my house.”
On the eastern end of Bed-Stuy, a handball court at Ralph Avenue and Monroe Street resembled a swimming pool. Neighbours dried out furniture on sidewalks. Residents in public housing reported flooding, water and power outages, and water entering their apartments across New York City.
At a cinema in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, it was a case of life imitating art.
Moviegoers were about an hour into a showing of La Piscine (The Swimming Pool) when they were told to leave or get wet themselves. Paul McAdory, who was in the cinema, described it as a “4D” experience.
“Suddenly the lights came up. Everyone started looking around for word on the reason for the disruption. That’s when a young woman who works at the theatre walked in and announced that the theatre was flooding, we were all in serious or immediate danger and we needed to leave post-haste,” he told The Independent.
“The lobby was flooded and seemed to become increasingly flooded as we debated whether to call a $100 car to Brooklyn or risk the subway. People had to jump over an area of water to get to the door or step through it.”
In Gowanus, Brooklyn, roads were flooded as storm drains overflowed. Many feared the infamously polluted Gowanus Canal would overflow and spill contaminated water into the surrounding houses, but it held through the night.
On Thursday, a State Farm insurance agent was seen surveying the area with a clipboard. When asked by The Independent about the damage caused by Ida, he said he was actually checking on a claim caused by tropical storm Henri, which hit the city a week ago.
The climate crisis is creating conditions which are driving more powerful, destructive storms like Ida.
While it’s still unclear whether the climate crisis will mean more hurricanes, scientists have long warned that increased global heating will likely make storms which we do experience more powerful and more destructive.
The ocean absorbs over 90 per cent of excess heat caused by greenhouse gas emissions – largely from the burning of fossil fuels – and that warm water feeds into hurricanes.
“There is more energy available, so intensification of these hurricanes is expected,” Dr Susan Lozier, president of the American Geophysical Union and an expert on the interaction of oceans, hurricanes and climate change, told The Independent. “And intensification brings more winds.”
When Ida made landfall in Louisiana on Sunday, more than a million people lost power when winds of up to 150mph toppled thousands of transmission lines and knocked 216 substations offline. Utility companies warned that thousands of residents could remain in the dark and without air conditioning or running water for several weeks amid stifling heat and humidity.
Another cause for concern is that as the planet heats up, more moisture is held in the atmosphere, meaning storms hold potential of a lot more rainfall.
“Within about 150km of the storm centre, we expect average rain flux rate to increase about 7 per cent for every one degree Celsius of global warming,” Dr Tom Knutson, senior scientist with the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, told The Independent.
Global sea level rise is compounding the danger of storm surge. The sea level off New York’s coast is up to nine inches higher than it was in 1950.
Ida’s danger has not yet fully passed. Forecasters continued to issue flood warnings across New Jersey as several major rivers had not yet crested. The Passaic, Delaware and Raritan Rivers are expected to hit peak levels through Thursday.
Flash flood warnings continued to be issued in eastern states as rescues were made by boat in parts of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Ida is the joint-fifth strongest hurricane ever to make landfall amid what’s shaping up to be a highly active Atlantic season. Last year saw a record-breaking 30 named storms which wreaked waves of damage in the US, Central America and the Caribbean.
And it’s far from over. As Ida took aim for New York on Wednesday, Tropical Storm Larry strengthened into a hurricane over the eastern Atlantic.
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