Hurricane Ida Aftermath Delivers Deadly Lesson on Climate Change

September 3, 2021

As Ida’s deadly waters receded and emergency crews raced to return power and transportation services, stunned residents of New York, New Jersey and other parts of the Northeast faced up to their vulnerability to new-weather storms.

By early Friday, the region was starting to recover following the storm that killed at least 41 people locally. The remnants of a hurricane that first hammered distant New Orleans had temporarily paralyzed the nation’s largest and wealthiest city, halted its lifeblood transit system and conjured a future constrained by recurrent disasters.

New York City and its suburbs, which rebuilt power grids, subways and tunnels after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy flooded lower Manhattan, again saw similar scenes. Roads were closed, commuter rail was hobbled and hundreds of flights were canceled. But lasting damage to infrastructure appeared far less this time.

Almost 49,000 homes and businesses across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut remained without electricity by 7:50 a.m. local time, according to Consolidated Edison Inc., which provides power to the New York City region, said it plans to restore service to 95% of its customers by Friday night.

Amtrak said it would resume rail service to the Northeast Corridor on Friday, and the three main airports that serve the New York City area appeared to be operating with few delays. The city’s subway authority said crews had worked throughout the night to restore operations for almost all lines, though it warned of limited service. New Jersey Transit said Friday morning that much of its rail service is once again running on regular schedules.

Still, the storm and its death toll served as grim reminders that weather once considered freakish is striking with regularity, threatening the viability of all coastal economic centers.

“Climate change is happening right now,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said via Twitter. “It is not a future threat. It is a current threat.” She formally requested a federal emergency management declaration for 14 counties to help them recover.

The summer has 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.

Rainfall from Hurricane Ida flood the basement of a Kennedy Fried Chicken fast food restaurant on September 1, 2021, in the Bronx, New York.
Surprise Attack

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. This 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 Northeast 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 8 inches of rain in a few hours. In Central Park, 3.15 inches 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.

By Thursday evening, officials said New York 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.

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.

In Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, where many roads had been submerged, Governor Phil Murphy said the storm 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.”

Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, officials reported three deaths. In Connecticut, a state police sergeant was swept away by flood waters.

Thirteen 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.

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.

Unequal Inundation

The storm flooded the basements of many businesses and homes in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, said Chi Ossé, 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.

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 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.”

–With assistance from Max Abelson, Donna Borak, Henry Goldman, Emma Kinery, Brian K. Sullivan, David Voreacos, Josh Saul, Nic Querolo, Shelly Banjo and Elise Young.

About the photo: People visit the flooded Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Getty Images.

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