Death toll rises to 49 after Ida batters East Coast

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The death toll rose to 49 on Friday as the East Coast cleaned up after the remnants of Ida unleashed destructive tornadoes and record rain and floods.

The toll was highest in New Jersey, where 25 people died in heavy rains late Wednesday and early Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy said on NBC’s “TODAY” show. He said six more people were missing.

A majority of the people who lost their lives drowned after their vehicles were caught in flash floods, with some dying in their submerged cars and others getting swept away after exiting into fast-moving water.

Seventeen people died in New York, with 13 of the deaths in a stunned New York City. Another five people died in Pennsylvania and a state trooper was killed in Connecticut when his car, too, was swept away.

In Maryland, a 19-year-old man died after flooding that displaced 150 people from an apartment building Wednesday morning, police said. At least six tornadoes hit the state, one of which was an EF2 with 125 mph winds, according to the National Weather Service.

President Joe Biden on Thursday issued emergency declarations in New York and New Jersey, allowing for federal aid. The governors of both states had earlier issued states of emergency.

One of the people missing in New Jersey is a first-year student at Seton Hall University, a private Catholic school in South Orange. Nidhi Rana and a friend were last seen in her hometown of Passaic, which was badly flooded, according to the school.

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Just about 15 miles south, Elizabeth, Millburn and Cranford were also pummeled by heavy rains. Murphy said Friday that Millburn was “crushed.”

At least 600 people were displaced in Elizabeth, according to the city’s mayor, J. Christian Bollwage.

Cranford Mayor Kathleen Miller Prunty, meanwhile, said Friday that 300 homes there still had to be pumped out.

A tornado that touched down farther south in Mullica Hill, New Jersey, was rated an EF3 with 150 mph winds, according to the National Weather Service. The twister, which destroyed at least nine homes, is the strongest to strike New Jersey since 1990. Most tornadoes associated with tropical systems are weaker than EF2.

A man walks by a home damaged by a tornado in Mullica Hill, N.J., on Sept. 2, 2021 after record-breaking rainfall brought by the remnants of Storm Ida swept through the area.Branden Eastwood / AFP – Getty Images

Murphy said no one was killed in the tornado.

“Tornado warnings get heeded,” while “sadly, when they hear flooding, they think you know what, it’s water, I can deal with it,” he told “TODAY” on Friday.

“And bless their souls, we’ve got 25 people who tried and lost their lives,” Murphy said.

He added: “We shouted out unequivocally that tornadoes were likely and flooding was likely, and this was going to be a very significant, historic rainstorm. We declared a state of emergency before anybody else in our neighborhood. Having said that, this was historic. I mean, you’ve got, 8 to 10, if not more, inches of rain in, across only several hours.”

About 12,000 customers in the state remained without power Friday, down from more than 92,000.

Murphy on Friday announced $10 million in financial relief for small businesses affected by the storm. Businesses can apply for up to $5,000. “Help is coming,” he said during a news conference Friday.

While Murphy said residents were forewarned of the severity of the storm, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the storm’s strength took them by surprise despite the National Hurricane Center warning since Tuesday of the potential for “significant and life-threatening flash flooding” and major river flooding in the mid-Atlantic region and New England.

De Blasio, also a Democrat, said he’d gotten a forecast Wednesday of 3 to 6 inches of rain for the day. The city’s Central Park ended up getting 3.15 inches in just one hour, surpassing the previous one-hour high of 1.94 inches during Tropical Storm Henri less than two weeks earlier.

“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 of water to the streets of New York,” said Hochul, a Democrat who became governor last week after Andrew Cuomo resigned.

“I don’t want this to happen again,” Hochul said during a news conference Thursday. “We haven’t experienced this before, but we should expect it the next time.”

“No longer will we say that won’t happen in our lifetime. This could literally happen next week,” she added during a news conference Friday.

She said a task force would look at what was done right and “if there’s any areas with shortcomings.”

For example, “we don’t want to see Niagara Falls down the stairs in subways,” Hochul said.

When asked if the storm caught her administration off-guard, she said: “I think the meteorologists are surprised. Mother nature does what she wants.”

But Maureen O’Leary, a public affairs specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told NBC News that “National Weather Service meteorologists were not surprised.”

“Their forecasting of the event was spot on,” O’Leary said. On Tuesday, the National Weather Service put out “aggressive messaging about the potential for heavy rain and flooding in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region.”

According to O’Leary, the briefing on Tuesday evening stated: “Significant and life-threatening flash flooding is possible from the mid-Atlantic into southern New England, especially across highly urbanized metropolitan areas and areas of steep terrain.”

The weather and flooding brought New York transit to a near standstill, with service suspended or severely limited across the subway system.

A rare tornado warning was issued for the Bronx and parts of Westchester on Wednesday night, while flights at LaGuardia, JFK and Newark Liberty airports were disrupted.

Dozens of matches at the U.S. Open were postponed Wednesday as rain ripped through New York City. A video showed spectators struggling to reach cover as heavy rain and strong winds pummeled one of the tournament’s stadiums. Many, relying on public transportation to get home, were stranded at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for hours.

The hurricane and its remnants knocked out power to hundreds of thousands in Louisiana and Mississippi, initially hit by then-Hurricane Ida. At least 11 people were killed in Louisiana, while two each died in Mississippi and Alabama.

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