Tropical Storm Henri hit the northeast in high winds and rain as it made landfall on the Rhode Island coast on Sunday, cutting power to more than 100,000 homes and causing downpours that closed bridges, flooded roads and left many people stranded in their vehicles.
The storm was downgraded from a hurricane before reaching New England, leaving many people to breathe a sigh of relief in an area that hasn’t been directly affected by a hurricane for decades. There have been few early reports of major damage from wind or waves.
But the heavy and sustained rains from the storm raised concerns about flooding caused by the storm that threatened to stop over the region before pivoting east and moving towards the Atlantic Ocean on Monday evening. Some of the highest rainfall totals were expected inland.
As of Sunday afternoon, Henri had sustained winds of around 50 mph as he moved inland through Connecticut, according to the National Hurricane Center. When it made landfall near Westerly, RI, it had sustained winds of around 60mph and gusts of up to 70mph.
Several major bridges in Rhode Island, which connect much of the state, were briefly closed on Sunday and some coastal roads were nearly impassable.
Western resident Collette Chisholm, a 20-year-old resident, said the waves were much higher than normal but said she was not worried about her home being seriously damaged.
“I like storms,” she says. “I think they’re exciting, as long as no one gets hurt.”
In Newport, Paul and Cherie Saunders were weathering the storm at a home his family has owned since the late 1950s. Their basement was flooded with 5 feet of water during Super Storm Sandy nine years ago.
“This house has been through so many hurricanes and so much has happened,” said Cherie Saunders, 68. “We’ll just wait and see what happens.”
Rhode Island has been periodically hit by hurricanes and tropical storms including Super Storm Sandy in 2012, Irene in 2011, and Hurricane Bob in 1991. The city of Providence has suffered so much damage from hurricane flooding in 1938 and Hurricane Carol in 1954 that she built a hurricane barrier in the 1960s to protect her downtown area from a storm surge going up Narragansett Bay. That barrier – and the new gates built nearby – were closed on Sunday.
Some communities in central New Jersey were inundated with up to eight inches of rain at noon Sunday. In Jamesburg, television video footage showed downtown streets flooded and cars almost completely submerged.
In Newark, Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara said police and firefighters rescued 86 people in 11 incidents related to the storm. He said “heavy flooding” resulted in several vehicles being submerged in flooded areas.
In an area where the soil in many areas is saturated by recent rains, forecasts raised fears that the worst effects of precipitation were yet to come.
Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric science program at the University of Georgia and former president of the American Meteorological Society, said Henry was in some ways reminiscent of Hurricane Harvey, a slow storm that decimated the Houston area in 2017, exacerbated when bands of rain settled east of the city, a phenomenon that meteorologists call “training”.
“You see a bit of that training in the New Jersey / New York area, even though the storm itself is a bit to the east and northeast,” Shepherd said. “On the west side of the storm, you have a banding feature that’s literally stationary – sitting there and pouring rain. This will be a significant danger to the New York and New Jersey area. “
Some in New England have cautioned against complacency, warning that Henry – if he stalls and dumps several inches of rain – had the potential to inflict similar damage to Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.
After Irene roared along the coast, many northeastern residents were relieved when the New York area was largely spared. But then the storm settled over the Green Mountains, and Irene became the biggest natural disaster to hit Vermont since an epic flood of 1927. Parts of the state received 11 inches of rain in just 24 hours. . Irene has killed six people in Vermont, left thousands homeless, and damaged or destroyed more than 200 bridges and 500 miles of highway.
“I remember Irene and media outside Vermont brushing him aside like it didn’t matter while he was hitting Vermont,” podcaster Robert Welch tweeted Sunday. “I’ll relax when I see him at sea on radar.”
As of Sunday afternoon, power outages affected more than 78,000 customers in Rhode Island, 32,000 in Connecticut, 9,000 in Massachusetts and 4,000 in New York.
In Connecticut, four coastal nursing homes were evacuated, according to Paul Mounds, chief of staff to the Connecticut governor. About 250 residents have been transferred to other nursing homes, he said. Storm-related flooding has been blamed for significant delays along Interstate 91 near Hartford.
In one of his last appearances as governor before he stepped down on Monday over a sexual harassment scandal, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that with the threat diminishing on Long Island, the state’s main concern was inland areas like the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, which is expected to receive a few inches of rain over the next few days.
Precipitation in the Catskills “is a big problem,” Cuomo said. “In the Hudson Valley you have hills, you have streams, water rushes down those hills and turns a stream into a devastating river. I saw small towns in these mountainous regions devastated by rain. This is still a very real possibility.
President Joe Biden has declared disasters across much of the region, opening the purse strings for federal stimulus aid. The White House said Biden discussed preparations with governors in the Northeast, and New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who succeeds Cuomo on Tuesday, also participated.
Major airports in the region remained open as the storm approached, although hundreds of Sunday flights were canceled. Service on some branches of the New York City commuter rail system was suspended until Sunday, as was Amtrak service between New York City and Boston.
Norbert Weissberg watched the waves from the edge of an East Hampton beach parking lot as strong winds whipped an American flag fluttering on an unmanned lifeguard chair.
“I’m always excited to see something as fierce as this,” Weissberg said. “It’s less fierce than I thought. We are all prepared for a major, major calamity, and it’s a little less than that. “
Kunzelman reported from Newport, Rhode Island. Porter reported from New York. Associated Press editors William J. Kole in Warwick, Rhode Island, Michelle Smith in Providence, Rhode Island, Michael R. Sisak and Julie Tucker of East Hampton, and Michael Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.