Flash floods in US east coast as Tropical Storm Henri makes landfall

Martha Fairlie reports as millions of Americans are urged to find safety

Flash floods have swept the US north east coast as Tropical Storm Henri made landfall, with millions fearing they could be about to experience the worst storm in decades.

The storm was downgraded from a hurricane on Sunday, but it still had sustained winds of about 60 mph and gusts of up to 70 mph when it hit the United States.

The high winds knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes and bands of rain led to flash flooding from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

Millions on New York’s Long Island and in southern New England braced for the possibility of flooding, toppled trees and extended power outages.

National Grid reported 74,000 customers without power in Rhode Island and EverSource is reporting nearly 20,000 customers out in Connecticut.

Several major bridges in Rhode Island, which stitch together much of the state, were briefly shuttered Sunday, and some coastal roads were nearly impassable. Hurricane warnings have been extended from coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island to near the old whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and across the luxurious estates of New York’s Hamptons to the summer getaway of Fire Island.

The first thunderstorms bringing what could be up to 15 cm of rain arrived late Saturday, and flash flooding began in some areas overnight. Bands of heavy rain overwhelmed storm drains and drivers plowed through foot-deep water in a few spots in New York City, and New Jersey's Newark and Hoboken. Tropical storm-intensity winds were expected to begin striking the coast at around 8 am.

Residents and visitors on Fire Island, a narrow strip of sandy villages barely above sea level off Long Island’s southern coast, were urged to evacuate. The last boats out left before 11 pm Saturday and officials warned there might be no way to reach people left behind.

The evacuation threw a wrench into Kristen Pavese’s planned Fire Island bachelorette party. The group of 10 had intended to celebrate Saturday night, but ended up leaving on the ferry just a day after arriving. They had planned to stay until Monday.

“I’m upset about it, but it’s the weather. It’s nothing I can control,” said Pavese, a Long Island resident. “I’ve been going to Fire Island for a long time, so I’m sort of familiar with this happening.”

Approaching severe weather on Saturday night also cut short a superstar-laden concert in Central Park. The show headlined by Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Jennifer Hudson was meant to celebrate New York City’s recovery from the coronavirus. But officials asked concertgoers to leave the park during Barry Manilow’s set amid the threat of lightning.

Barry Manilow's set is cut short as Henri thwarts a Central Park concert

Governor Andrew Cuomo, set to leave office Monday after resigning over a sexual harassment scandal, emerged on Saturday to plead with New York residents to make last-minute preparations, warning that heavy rain, wind and storm surge from Henri could be as devastating as Superstorm Sandy back in 2012.

“We have short notice. We’re talking about tomorrow,” Cuomo said in one of his final forays before TV cameras, a setting that shot him to fame during the worst of the pandemic last year.

“So if you have to move, if you have to stock up, if you have to get to higher ground, it has to be today. Please.”

Major airports in the region remained open as the storm approached, though hundreds of Sunday’s flights were cancelled. Service on some branches of New York City’s commuter rail system was suspended through Sunday, as was Amtrak service between New York and Boston. The White House said President Joe Biden discussed preparations with northeastern governors and that New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who succeeds Cuomo on Tuesday, also participated. Biden later began approving emergency declarations with Rhode Island.

New York hasn’t had a direct hit from a powerful cyclone since Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc in 2012. Some of the most important repairs from that storm have been completed, but many projects designed to protect against future storms remain unfinished.

James Masog and Gary Tavares board up the glass doors of a client's house in Charlestown, Rhode Island, ahead of Hurricane Henri's arrival. Credit: AP

Regardless of its exact landfall, broad impacts were expected across a large swath of the Northeast, extending inland to Hartford, Connecticut, and Albany, New York, and eastward to Cape Cod, which is teeming with tens of thousands of summer tourists. In the Hamptons, the celebrity playground on Long Island’s east end, officials warned of dangerous rip currents and flooding that’s likely to turn streets like the mansion-lined Dune Road into lagoons. “We have a lot of wealthy people. There’s no doubt that we do, but everybody pulls together in an emergency,” Jay Schneiderman, supervisor for Southampton, a town in the Hamptons, said.

“There are people hanging out on their yachts at the moment drinking martinis, but they’re also starting to talk about this storm and I’m sure they’re going to want to be helpful.”