New Jersey’s Stunning Storm Toll Includes Many Who Drowned in Cars
Malathi Kanche was heading home after dropping her son off at college Wednesday evening when the small S.U.V. she was driving was overwhelmed by …
Malathi Kanche was heading home after dropping her son off at college Wednesday evening when the small S.U.V. she was driving was overwhelmed by floodwaters set off by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
With the vehicle stalled in waist-deep water on Route 22 in Bridgewater, N.J., she and her 15-year-old daughter climbed out. They clung to a tree as the torrent rushed past, according to a close family friend and neighbor, Mansi Mago.
Then the tree gave way, and “the water took her,” said Ms. Mago, recounting what another stranded motorist told her hours later.
A 46-year-old software designer who emigrated from India, Ms. Kanche was one of six people who were still missing two days after Ida caused the deaths of at least 25 people in New Jersey — more fatalities than in any other state — as the monster storm whipped its way onto the Gulf Coast and tore north to New England.
At least a third of the fatalities in New Jersey were people who drowned after being trapped in vehicles in a densely packed state known for its car culture, its tangle of highways, suburban commuter towns and limited public transportation.
Screeching alerts had sounded repeatedly on cellphones late Wednesday, warning people to stay inside, but no travel bans were put in place in New Jersey or New York, where 16 deaths — including 13 in New York City — have been linked to the storm. On Friday, in an acknowledgment of the growing risk of flash flooding as climate change unleashes increasingly intense storms, New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced that the city would increase its use of evacuation orders and travel bans.
In New Jersey, officials have not said whether they would apply new measures to protect the state given the likelihood of severe storms happening more frequently.
As the region faced the daunting task of cleaning and clearing debris, Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey and Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York both said that they were expecting large infusions of recovery aid from the federal government. President Biden was expected to soon declare the states a federal disaster area.
Mr. Murphy, speaking from Millburn, whose downtown commercial corridor had been ravaged by the rain, said the state would make $10 million in aid available to small businesses. “If you’ve been crushed and you can prove it, you’re eligible,” Mr. Murphy said.
Early Friday, Mr. Murphy was still warning people to remain off the roads, especially near waterways that had not yet crested.
“Many motorists have been caught by surprise that the depth of the water on a road that they thought they knew — not to mention the swiftness of the current,” Mr. Murphy said.
“You can easily be swept away or trapped,” he said. “And sadly, we have many examples of just that.”
The stories of devastation and death were tempered by the many tales of rescue in New Jersey, where the National Weather Service said three tornadoes also touched down during the storm, leveling homes in South Jersey but killing no one.
In South Plainfield, N.J., a 31-year-old man, Danush Reddy, lost his footing as he was walking alongside a flooded roadway and was swept into a 36-inch-wide sewer pipe, borough officials said. His body was found miles away.
But as the police searched for Mr. Reddy, they found a second man who had been sucked into the same pipe earlier Wednesday but had managed to survive by clinging to debris in the fast-moving current. “It really is a miracle,” said Glenn Cullen, South Plainfield’s administrator.
A pregnant woman was plucked from the top of her car by the police in Cranford, N.J., where streets turned into rivers and 300 people were still waiting for emergency help to pump out flooded basements at 11 a.m. Friday, Lt. Matthew Nazzaro said.
And in Millburn, a contractor heard a honking car horn and ran to help free the driver of a submerged Jeep. Then he went back for the man’s two laptop computers and let the stranded motorist sleep in his shop for the night.
“He didn’t think of anything but helping me,” the man, Joseph Siaba, said. “He gave me hope in humanity. At that moment I felt like Covid didn’t exist.”
Mr. Siaba had been trying to make his way to Union City to visit his girlfriend and had made his way to Millburn after managing to get off Route 78 — a main artery in New Jersey where hundreds of drivers were stuck in cars until dawn on Thursday.
Ray McGrath, 52, had been heading home to Fanwood, N.J., after a service call in Manhattan when westbound traffic came to a standstill on Route 78 at about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Some drivers tried to plow ahead.
“You could see them drive in and the car stopped and their lights went out,” said Mr. McGrath, who said he was marooned on the highway until about 5:30 a.m. “I just got comfortable and actually took a nap.”
Four residents of an apartment complex in Elizabeth, N.J., did not have the same luxury of time.
They died before they could escape from a first-floor apartment as water from the nearby Elizabeth River rushed through windows of the complex, the Oaks at Westminster. They were identified on Friday as Rosa Espinal, 72; her husband, Jose Torres, 71; and their 38-year-old son, Jose. A neighbor, Shakia Garrett, also died in the flood.
“It just rose so fast and so high,” said Tisha Dickson, one of 600 residents who had to be evacuated from the complex.
J. Christian Bollwage, a longtime mayor and lifelong resident of Elizabeth, said he had never seen flooding devastation so severe. The police had already towed 40 immobilized cars off the city’s major roadways, he said, and continued to clear five to 10 cars an hour on Friday.
Of the 25 confirmed deaths in New Jersey, eight people died trapped in cars, a state official said. At least one person was electrocuted and another person died of a heart attack after trying to push a car to safety. Hunterdon County in western New Jersey saw the most fatalities — six — followed by Somerset County, which had five.
By Friday morning, power had been restored to 80,000 of the more than 92,000 households that had lost power during the storm, according to the state’s utility board. But fires caused by explosions at structures inundated by water were reported in Rahway and Manville.
Mr. Murphy declared a state of emergency at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, and had warned motorists hours earlier about the risks of flash flooding during an unrelated Covid-19 briefing.
“Ida is going to be dropping water on already saturated ground, heightening the threat of flash flooding,” Mr. Murphy said. “If you are out and come across high waters, do not go into them — turn around, don’t drown.”
“Let this storm pass,” he added, urging residents to remain off roads for all but emergency travel but stopping short of an outright ban.
The volume of rain was staggering, shattering records that in some cases had been set only late last month when the remains of Hurricane Henri swept through the region. Newark Liberty International Airport recorded 8.44 inches of rain from 4 a.m. Wednesday to 4 a.m. Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
Cranford, a township along the Rahway River in northern New Jersey, had close to 10 inches of rain — more than double what weather forecasters had predicted, and in half the time anticipated, Lieutenant Nazzaro said.
“I just don’t think people expected the magnitude of the flash flooding,” he said.
While there were no deaths, Cranford’s police and fire departments responded to at least 15 calls of people trapped inside cars. Helicopters hovered overhead on Thursday, broadcasting images nationwide of the flood-ravaged township.
Farther north, along the Hudson River in Edgewater, N.J., the roads were equally treacherous.
Rickie Ricardo, a Yankees announcer, recounted how he drove through floodwaters to rescue his fellow announcer, John Sterling, 83, who was trapped in a Cadillac while trying to drive home to Edgewater after calling the game Wednesday night from Yankee Stadium.
Their colleague, Suzyn Waldman, had gotten a call from Mr. Sterling, who reported being stranded in high water on River Road. She knew that Mr. Ricardo, who left the stadium at about 10:30 p.m., would be headed home the same way.
“It was nuts,” Mr. Ricardo, who announces the Yankees games in Spanish, said in an interview. “I live in Florida, too. I’m used to hurricanes, been through several, but in this environment — all that rain and loose rubble — I had never experienced that before. It was so much water.”
He eventually reached the Cadillac, and helped guide Mr. Sterling out the passenger side and into his Jeep as water began to cover its hood.
“The real hero,” he said, “was my Jeep.”
On Friday afternoon, Ms. Kanche’s family in Raritan, N.J., received the news they had been dreading.
The police had found a body of a woman matching Ms. Kanche’s description.
“It is with a heavy heart that I have to report the loss of one of our own citizens,” the mayor of Raritan, Zachary R. Bray, announced on Facebook, thanking the police in Bridgewater “for their tireless efforts these last few days in the search for Malathi.”
Precious Fondren, Matthew Goldstein and Ashley Wong contributed reporting, and Susan Beachy contributed research.