‘Worst we’ve ever seen’: Philadelphia area rocked by Ida as 676 remains closed

Mayor Jim Kenney couldn’t say when the Vine Street Expressway would reopen in the wake of severe flooding caused by remnants of Hurricane Ida.

Gov. Tom Wolf comes to witness Hurricane Ida damage in PA

Horsham Township Manager William T. Gildea-Walker (red shirt) describes the tornado damage to the town's elementary school to Gov. Tom Wolf, who toured the site on Friday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Looking ahead to yet another recovery after more than a year of unexpected crises, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney offered some solace to the soggy city at a Friday press conference.

“Philadelphia has not experienced such extreme flooding in any of our lifetimes,” Kenney said. “While loss of property is devastating, I think it’s remarkable that as of now we’re not aware of any deaths in Philadelphia due to the storm.”

Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management Director and Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said the city had made it out of the crisis zone. The Schuylkill River is “below flood stage,” he added.

Still, Thiel estimated the road ahead would be slow going. The deluge was the worst flooding seen by Philadelphia in more than a century, officials said.

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“There’s still dangerous conditions in a lot of places. At the same time, we’re moving into the recovery and cleanup mode,” Thiel said. “The recovery process for this is going to take months.”

City officials couldn’t say when the Vine Street Expressway, which was submerged during the floods, would reopen. Philadelphia is assisting PennDOT with the cleanup of the interstate highway. The city didn’t offer an estimate of the costs associated with the road rehabilitation but Steve Lorenz, the city’s chief highway engineer, laid out an extensive work program.

“For a typical recovery and cleanup, you need to scrape the mud and debris off the roadway, and then evaluate the roadway to see if there’s any damage underneath,” Lorenz said. “The inlets need to be cleaned out so future rainstorms and the existing water has someplace to drain, and then inspect the existing infrastructure underground.”

Thiel, like many Philadelphians, had advice for the swimmers who cooled off in 676’s brown river: Get a tetanus shot. He warned others to keep out of the water.

For those seeking a less-risky adventure, Kenney said Ida would not stop the planned Made in America music festival from taking over the nearby Ben Franklin Parkway.

“We can do two things at once,” the mayor said, referring to flood mitigation and festival preparation. “Beyonce is coming…it’ll be fun for a change.”

Gov. Murphy promises aid for small NJ businesses

Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy plans to send $10 million in relief to small businesses hit by Hurricane Ida, he announced Friday at a press conference in Millburn, where floodwaters caused serious damage over the past 24 hours.

Across New Jersey, 25 people lost their lives to the storm, Murphy said. At least six people remain missing.

“As with any emergency situation, our top priority is the health and safety of New Jerseyans, and we extend our deepest condolences to those families experiencing the loss or grave injury of a loved one,” Murphy said. “Now that the skies have cleared, we are eager to get to work on helping those who are waking up to harsh economic realities reclaim their livelihoods and mitigate Ida’s financial impacts to their businesses and the hardworking people they employ.”

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority will provide the funds, which will come in addition to any other aid for affected home and business owners that will come from the federal government or other sources.

The proposed $10 million grant program will target small businesses and nonprofit entities with up to 50 employees for grants of $1,000 to $5,000 dollars. Landlords and home-based businesses are not eligible for grant funding through this program. Under the preliminary plan, to be eligible, the applying entity must:

The Murphy administration will present the proposed program to the NJEDA board on Sept. 8  If approved, the agency will release further details about eligibility and how to apply.

‘It’s catastrophic’

Floodwaters have largely receded following historic rains brought by remnants of Hurricane Ida, but residents and business owners in Philadelphia’s hard-hit Manayunk neighborhood are just beginning to dig out.

The Schuylkill River blew past previous records, surging nearly a dozen feet beyond flood stage and sending water into shops and homes along Main Street and leaving the strip caked in silt and mud on Friday.

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Tim Spinner, owner of Taqueria Amor, had about six feet of water in his basement at the height of the flooding, and now needs a new HVAC system that he’s not sure flood insurance will cover. For his and other restaurants, the catastrophic flooding couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“We were just getting on our feet in this pandemic,” Spinner said.

Main Street is a close-knit business community, he noted, and he has spent the last 24 hours checking in with fellow restaurant and shop owners. Ultimately, he considers himself relatively lucky — some businesses down the street suffered much more extensive damage to their main floors.

“I have to stay positive,” Spinner said. “I’m responsible for 45 team members, you know, I have a family of seven I have to take care of. You just have to keep going, right? Can’t give up.”

Mike Rose, owner of Manayunk Brewing Company, was among the worst hit. On Friday, he was out with rubber boots on, taking stock of the damage at a business that is sited in a particularly flood-prone bend in the Schuylkill.

“It’s catastrophic, it’s the worst we’ve ever seen,” he said. “But we’ll get through it.”

Next door, the building that has long been home to Mad River Bar and Grill was even worse off. It closed for good last year after being hit by a different flood, and then, the pandemic. Local architecture and construction company Designblendz bought it as a new office and has been in the process of renovating the old stone building.

On Friday morning, Designblendz co-owner Austin Trusty was walking slowly through the property, describing the damage to his partners. They always knew the building could flood, but this was “shocking,” he said.

“We have about a foot of mud on the first floor, and we have about four to five feet of mud in the basement,” he said, gesturing to the waterlogged front door. “And the back deck is obviously gone. Floated down Main Street.”

Marquise Jones, 26, has also had a long 24-hours. He works with his family’s towing company, which has a parking lot right on the banks of the Schuylkill and said all the cars parked there were floating yesterday — and any car that took on water was a total loss.

“The insurance companies don’t play,” Jones said.

The Philadelphia suburbs were also pummeled, with Montgomery County recording at least three fatalities, with another in Bucks. As of Friday, cleanup trucks dotted roads in the hardest hit areas of Horsham and Upper Dublin, where a tornado touched down on Wednesday. Many roads remained blocked and chainsaws whirred continuously to clear the damage.

Power remains out for around 16,000 PECO customers systemwide, according to CEO Mike Innocenzo. Power is expected to be restored to all by Sunday.

Cell coverage remains spotty but Verizon brought out mobile towers, called “cows” to help connect customers, said Upper Dublin Board of Commissioners president Ira Tackel.

“Power poles [were] snapped like twigs,” he said. “We had a 120 foot cellphone tower with multiple carriers on it. It’s gone.”

Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf toured areas of Montgomery County devastated by flooding and a tornado Friday, accompanied by local lawmakers, state officials and representatives from utility companies.

Gov. Wolf speaks in aftermath of Hurricane Ida
Horsham Township Manager William T. Gildea-Walker (red shirt) describes the tornado damage to the town’s elementary school to Gov. Tom Wolf (center), who toured the site on Frday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In Upper Dublin, where the township administration building’s roof lay crumpled out front, he vowed to rebuild.

“We’re doing everything we can at the state level and I know the county and township are doing everything they can to make sure they respond as quickly as possible and help with the cleanup and make that go as smoothly as possible,” said Wolf.

Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said the state is tracking the damage to request a joint preliminary damage assessment from FEMA, a key step in requesting federal financial assistance for people whose homes suffered due to flooding or high winds. He said there is no current estimate for the total cost of the storm damage.

“There’s a cash flow problem for families right now,” said Wolf. He said the state is also undertaking a process to seek federal funds for local governments to do infrastructure repairs.

Montgomery County residents whose homes were damaged can fill out an online form to help the local government build its own application for aid.

Area residents Christina Sunday and Jenny Shapiro, both of Ambler, surveyed the damage at Upper Dublin High School, where high winds ripped off the metal roof of the swimming pool and crumpled it like a tissue.

Wreckage in aftermath of Hurricane Ida at Upper Dublin High School
Portions of the roof of the Upper Dublin Township municipal building lie twisted on the lawn after a powerful tornado blew through the township. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It’s sad because they wanted to go back to school, they were ready, and now this,” said Sunday, whose son attends the school.

“It’s scary, you don’t expect it to happen here. You hear this out in the Midwest … people are out of their homes,” said Shapiro.

Aqua, a major suburban water utility provider asked customers across southeastern Pennsylvania to discontinue nonessential water use until further notice as utility crews work to restore two flood-damaged water treatment plants.

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