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Long recovery ahead as Ida’s remnants lead to historic flooding, tornadoes in Philly region

Philadelphia Fire Department personnel carry residents of the River Walk apartments to dry land at 22nd and Arch streets after they were trapped by floodwaters. (Emma Lee/(WHYY)

Remnants of Hurricane Ida barreled through Pennsylvania Wednesday overnight into Thursday, bringing torrential rainfall and at least one tornado. Four deaths believed to be storm-related were being investigated.

All of eastern Pennsylvania remains under a Flood Warning. More than 67,000 customers statewide remain without power, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages nationwide.

School District of Philadelphia students will attend school virtually Friday. All after-school activities are canceled for the rest of the week.

Here’s what you need to know as city, county, and state officials assess the aftermath of the storm.

Schuylkill shelter-in-place

The Schuylkill River is rising to dangerous levels in Philadelphia, according to local officials, who urged residents to shelter in place if they live in a flood-prone area along the river.

“There are multiple rescues from cars in floodwater,” the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management said. “If you live in a flood-prone area (specifically in Manayunk and Eastwick), the city advises shelter-in-place, if safe to do so, until water recedes and it’s safe to leave.”

At a Thursday press conference, Mayor Jim Kenney said the remnants of Hurricane Ida had “lived up to the worst predictions and forecasts” in Philadelphia.”

Flooding closes the Vine Street Expressway from Broad Street to the Schuylkill River. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

There has been major flooding throughout the region, and the Delaware River rose beyond its banks overnight before receding, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said.

But the Schuylkill bore the brunt of the storm. It rose to heights not seen in more than 150 years, he said, and is on track to potentially break the all-time record from 1869, when the river crested at 17 feet.

The National Weather Service has said the river will likely crest at 17.2 feet, and Thiel said it could go higher. As of 11:30 a.m. Thursday, the water was still rising.

A car is swamped at Park Towne Place apartments off 22nd Street near the Vine Street Expressway. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
22nd Street under the JFK Boulevard is swamped as the Schuylkill River rises. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Shown is flooding in Philadelphia, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
I-676 is submerged in floodwaters after Ida's remnants struck the Philly region overnight. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY)
Shown is flooding in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Shown is flooding in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Flooding closes the Vine Street Expressway from Broad Street to the Schuylkill River. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Flooding closes the Vine Street Expressway from Broad Street to the Schuylkill River. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kenney said that he is expecting the devastation from the flooding to be widespread, and that he’s already trying to figure out whether the city will qualify for state or federal disaster relief. But he noted that, with floodwaters still rising, it’s too soon for the city to assess the full extent of the damage.

“We’re not out of this yet,” Thiel agreed. The Fire Department is still conducting water rescues, he said — estimating that it already pulled “hundreds” of people out of flooded cars and first-floor apartments.

There have been no casualties reported, the city officials said, but people should still be cautious. Those who live in flood-prone areas should shelter in place, and nobody should enter floodwaters — which can carry dangerous chemicals and pathogens for raw sewage — if they can help it.

The Schuylkill is expected to stay at its flood stage until Friday. The city is maintaining an emergency shelter in the heavily flooded Northwest at Roxborough High School, and says there’s another center they can reopen at West Philadelphia High School if needed.

Water rises on Race Street near the Schuylkill River. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In Manayunk, at the shopping center where Main Street splits from Ridge Avenue, more than a dozen vehicles could be seen almost completely covered in water.

“The rain has stopped, but flood risk continues,” Philadelphia OEM said.

Several businesses on Main Street appeared to have significant water damage as flood levels remained more than chest-high in certain sections. Mad River, Manayunk Brewing Co., and Pizzeria L’Angolo were among those submerged.

The crowd that gathered near where the water receded at Jamestown Avenue saw a kayaker paddling the waterlogged street. Mere feet from the crest of the floodwaters, Pilgrim Coffee Roasters suffered zero damage.

Owner Ryan Connelly, 26, said the crowd meant double business for him, as he expressed regret for what his neighbors were enduring.

“I really feel for the guys that are literally 20 feet away from me that are underwater right now, really unfortunate that businesses are getting flooded, but for us, people are coming to see the water, coming to get coffee.”

Upriver in Montgomery County, where historic flooding along the Schuylkill damaged homes and businesses in the Norristown area, Andrew Kagan, of nearby Bridgeport, said he’s never seen this level of flood damage here.

Andrew Kagan, of Bridgeport, said he’s never seen this level of flood damage here.

“I talked to some people and they say it hasn’t been this bad since Hurricane Agnes in 1972,” Kagan said. “I believe them.”

Emergency crews have closed off bridges between Bridgeport and Norristown and flooding has closed the Norristown Transportation Center.

Vehicles are under floodwater from Schuylkill River in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
The Schuylkill River exceeds its bank in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A residential building is surrounded by the floodwaters from the Schuylkill River in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Gas pumps are submerged in water as the Schuylkill River exceeds its bank in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Vehicles are under water during flooding in Norristown, Pa. Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Vehicles are under water during flooding on Main Street in Norristown, Pa. Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Bucks County

As was true elsewhere in the region Thursday, the flooding continued in Bucks County even though the rain had stopped. The county declared a disaster emergency and urged residents to stay clear of the roads.

Neshaminy Creek and the Delaware River, both of which were expected to crest Thursday evening, were causing the most headaches.

From 3 p.m. Wednesday to Thursday morning, the county received more than 5,200 911 calls for assistance. During a Thursday afternoon press briefing, County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia said that number is typically only about 1,500.

“Unfortunately, at least one of those calls turned out to be related to a fatality. We don’t have any information on that yet, but our thoughts and prayers are with their friends and family,” Ellis-Marseglia said. The death occurred in Milford Township, near Quakertown.

Rescue teams worked through the night on Wednesday, a massive challenge due to debris and flooded roads.

“We had quite a bit going on in Perkasie and Sellersville for several hours last night, and we tried to bring in resources from the lower end of the county. Because of the water and the trees and the debris and the wires, we couldn’t get them there, so we had to get help from outside of the county,” said Audrey Kenny, director of emergency services.

In addition to Perkasie and Sellersville, county officials listed Quakertown, Doylestown, and Buckingham as among the areas hardest hit by heavy rain and damaging winds. There has been a wide range of infrastructure damage done across the county.

“So, we do expect that this recovery will take some time,” Kenny said.

Power outages were also unavoidable, with 4,700 households still without power — 17% of the county, according to Kenny. In the meantime, county and municipal officials were in the field evaluating the damage.

Haunted Lane in Bensalem, a low-lying road along the Neshaminy Creek, was among the roads covered in water for much of Thursday morning. Late in the afternoon, home remodeling team Chaz Smith and John Ghost were tossing debris into a dumpster while waiting for several feet of water to flow out of the basement of a house they’ve been working on.

“We don’t want nothing to short-circuit while we’re here,” Smith said.

The owner — who was busy talking to insurers — just bought the house recently and was fixing it up. He and the renovation team knew this area was prone to flooding, but Smith says he would have never expected anything like this.

“We grew up around here, this is the worst we’ve ever seen it,” Smith said. “At the peak it was probably about three to four feet high, inside and outside the house … Just a little bit ago, a boat went flying by on some docks that broke loose from up the creek.”

Gesturing to the still-underwater backyard and the mud-caked road beyond it, Ghost agreed. “It’s super high,” he said. “Higher than we’ve ever seen it before.”

At its peak Thursday morning, the Neshaminy had risen to nearly 21 feet near Langhorne, according to the National Weather Service. There are only two recorded instances of the creek going higher in that area — once in 1999, and once in 1955. Upstream in Penn’s Park, though, the river was even higher. The Weather Service gauge in that location clocked a 23.4 foot level Thursday morning — the highest it has on record.

For updates on future storms and emergencies, County Commissioner Bob Harvie reminded residents of a tool at their disposal: a notification system that can be found on the county website.

“It’ll give you the pages you can click on and you can sign up for what’s called “Ready Bucks,” so that you will get notifications of things as they come up — not just weather-related, but certainly over the past 24 hours of needing to notify people about weather emergencies has been the thing that we’ve been trying to do the most,” Harvie said.

Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo said he has lived in the area for all his 71 years, and that climate change has to be taken seriously.

“We’ve got to work together with everyone to make sure that we stop this global warming, because if we don’t, I think we’re just going to be facing these types of storms at a much more frequent time,” DiGirolamo said.

DiGirolamo pointed to the recent storm a couple of months ago as evidence of a concerning pattern of extreme weathering rocking the county.

Montgomery County

Montgomery County has issued a disaster declaration that will enable it to seek reimbursement for damage. In a Thursday morning briefing, officials said the storm aftermath was still very much an active situation.

The National Weather Service confirmed an EF-2 tornado touched down in Fort Washington/Upper Dublin Township to Horsham Township on Wednesday, with estimated peak winds up to 130 mph.

“I am extremely sad to report that there are currently three storm-related fatalities being investigated by the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office. We will have further details on those once they become available. I would like to extend my deepest condolences to their family and friends,” County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh said.

A report from 6abc’s Action News said that a woman was killed in Upper Dublin Township after a tree came down onto a home.

As of Thursday morning, 38,000 households were still without electricity.

Montco officials called Ida a historical flooding event, with total countywide average rainfall of more than eight inches. Many bridges remain closed as the flooding continues, and some creeks have yet to crest.

Arkoosh said the county had received more than 6,500 emergency calls to 911 since 11 a.m. Wednesday.

“In addition, we have recorded more than 452 water rescue events, with some still ongoing, this morning,” Arkoosh said. “To put this in context, the highest number of water rescues associated with a storm of this type ever was during last year’s Isaias storm, when 135 water rescues were conducted.”

The Schuylkill River and the Perkiomen Creek are continuing to rise, Arkoosh said.

“I want to emphasize that they have not yet crested. Both waterways have already surpassed all-time records. Please do not travel unless you absolutely have to,” she said.

Because floodwater can contain hidden hazards such as chemicals and sharp objects, the county is urging residents to keep a close eye on children and pets.

Anyone in need of a place to stay Thursday night can go to the Red Cross shelter set up at  Norristown Area High School. Residents who would like to get text message alerts with updates on storm recovery can text MontcoIda to 888-777.

Officials want to make sure all property damage is reported to the county, so they are asking residents to fill out a form on the county website.

“We are working on getting up the information so that you can report to your township, but you do need to report both to the county and to the township. And this forum reports to the county,” Commissioner Ken Lawrence said.

A storm cleanup hotline has been set up “for residents who have sustained damage and need help with cutting falling trees, removing affected drywall, flooring and appliances, tarping roofs, and more.” The number is 844-965-1386.

WHYY’s Robby Brod, Kevin McCorry, and 6abc contributed reporting.

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