Tropical Storm Henri socked the Northeast with strong winds as it made landfall Sunday on the coast of Rhode Island and sent lashing bands of rain westward, knocking out power to over 140,000 homes and causing deluges that closed bridges, swamped roads and left some people stranded in their vehicles.
The storm was downgraded from a hurricane before reaching New England, leaving many to breathe a sigh of relief, but the National Hurricane Center warned the slow-moving storm would continue dumping heavy rains on wide swaths of the region well beyond the weekend.
Over two days, heavy, sustained rains flooded areas as far southwest as New Jersey, even as it took on tropical depression status.
The storm threatened to stall near the New York-Connecticut border overnight, before pivoting east and moving out toward the Atlantic Ocean on Monday. Some of the highest rain totals were expected inland. There were few early reports of major coastal damage due to wind or surf.
President Joe Biden on Sunday promised to provide federal help to the residents of affected states. The president declared disasters in much of the region, opening the purse strings for federal recovery aid.
Biden earlier had offered his condolences to the people of Tennessee, after severe flooding from an unrelated storm killed at least 22, including young children and elderly people, and left dozens of others missing.
When it made landfall near Westerly, Rhode Island, Henri had sustained winds of about 60 mph and gusts of up to 70 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. By late Sunday, Henri had sustained winds of about 30 mph (48 kph) as it moved across Connecticut toward the New York state line.
Some of the worst rain arrived well before the storm's center. In Helmetta, New Jersey, some 200 residents fled for higher ground, taking refuge in hotels or with friends and family, as flood waters inundated their homes.
“It came so quick — in the blink of an eye,” said the town's mayor, Christopher Slavicek, whose parents were spending the night after fleeing their home.
“Now there's clean up. So this is far from over,” the mayor said.
Some communities in central New Jersey were inundated with as much as 8 inches (20 centimeters) of rain by midday Sunday. In Jamesburg, television video footage showed flooded downtown streets 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 “significant flooding” led to multiple vehicles submerged in flooded areas.
“This could have been a lot worse, particularly as it relates to wind,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Sunday evening.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said Henri was close to being in the “rear view mirror,” but said there’s still more work to do, even as mandatory evacuations were being lifted in some communities. About 250 residents from four nursing homes on the shoreline had to be relocated to other nursing homes.
Several major bridges in Rhode Island, which stitch together much of the state, were briefly shuttered Sunday, and some coastal roads were nearly impassable.
In Newport, Paul and Cherie Saunders rode out the storm in a home that her family has owned since the late 1950s. Their basement flooded with 5 feet of water during Superstorm Sandy nine years ago.
“This house has been through so many hurricanes and so many things have happened,” said Cherie Saunders, 68. “We’re just going to wait and see what happens.”
Rhode Island has been hit by hurricanes and tropical storms periodically — including Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Bob in 1991. The city of Providence sustained so much flooding damage from a hurricane in 1938 and Hurricane Carol in 1954 that it built a hurricane barrier in the 1960s to protect its downtown from a storm surge coming up Narragansett Bay. That barrier — and newer gates built nearby — were closed for hours Sunday before reopening.
The National Weather Service recorded what could be the wettest hour ever in Central Park, with 1.94 inches of torrential rainfall pelting the park between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Saturday. Earlier in the evening, thousands attending a Homecoming concert at the park were forced to disperse because of heavy rainfall.
After passing back through New England and sweeping out into the Atlantic over the next couple of days, the hurricane center predicted, Henri "will lose its identity.”
Until then, areas from northeast Pennsylvania through New England braced for heavy rains.
Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia and former president of the American Meteorological Society, said Henri was reminiscent in some ways of Hurricane Harvey, a slow-moving storm that decimated the Houston area in 2017.
“To the west side of the storm, you have a banding feature that has literally been stationary — sitting there and dumping rain. That will be a significant hazard for the New York and New Jersey area," Shepherd said.
After Tropical Storm Irene roared up the coast in August 2011, many were relieved when the New York City area largely was spared. But then the storm settled over the Green Mountains, and Irene became the biggest natural disaster to hit Vermont since an epic 1927 flood. Parts of the state got 11 inches of rain in just 24 hours. Irene killed six in Vermont, left thousands homeless, and damaged or destroyed more than 200 bridges and 500 miles of highway.
“I remember Irene and media outlets outside Vermont brushing it aside as if no big deal while it hit Vermont,” Robert Welch, a podcaster, tweeted Sunday. “I’ll relax when I see it at sea on radar.”
In one of his final appearances as governor before he is set to step down at the end of Monday over a sexual harassment scandal, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state’s primary concern were inland areas like the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, which was projected to get inches of rain over the next few days.
“In the Hudson Valley you have hills, you have creeks, the water comes running down those hills and turns a creek into a ravaging river," Cuomo said.
Major airports in the region remained open as the storm approached, though hundreds of Sunday’s flights were canceled. 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.
Power outages affected power to 130,000 homes across Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.
Connecticut's largest electric utility said it had restored 20,000 customers but thousands like Linda Orlomoski, who lives in Canterbury, remained without power.
“I haven’t seen any trucks at all in my neighborhood but the opposite end of my road had their power restored before 6 p.m. So close and yet so far!” she said. “It’s supposed to get nasty hot and humid again on Tuesday. So if we still have no power by then, that will be miserable.”
Kunzelman reported from Newport, Rhode Island. Porter reported from New York. Associated Press writers William J. Kole in Warwick, Rhode Island, Michelle Smith in Providence, Rhode Island, Michael R. Sisak and Julie Walker from East Hampton, Will Lester in Washington, Philip Marcelo in Boston, Michael Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, Susan Haigh in Norwich, Connecticut, and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that a quoted utility customer’s last name is Orlomoski, not Oski.