Storm Henri batters U.S. East Coast, knocking out power to more than 100,000 homes

Tropical storm Henri socked the northeast with heavy wind and rain as it made landfall Sunday on the coast of Rhode Island, knocking out power to more than 100,000 homes and causing deluges that closed bridges, swamped roads and left many people stranded in their vehicles.

Heavy rain closed bridges, swamped roads and left many stranded in vehicles

Rescuers help evacuees following a flash flood caused by tropical storm Henri in Helmetta, N.J., on Sunday. (Tom Brenner/AFP/Getty Images)

Tropical storm Henri socked the U.S. northeast with heavy wind and rain as it made landfall Sunday on the coast of Rhode Island, knocking out power to more than 100,000 homes and causing deluges that closed bridges, swamped roads and left many people stranded in their vehicles.

The storm was downgraded from a hurricane before reaching New England, leaving many to breathe a sigh of relief in a region that has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane in decades. There were few early reports of major damage due to wind or surf.

However, the storm was forecast to dump heavy rain across the northeast through Monday night, possibly triggering flash floods and further power outages across the region.

By Sunday afternoon, Henri had sustained winds of about 80 km/h as it moved inland across Connecticut, according to the National Hurricane Center. When it made landfall near Westerly, R.I., it had sustained winds of about 96 km/h and gusts of up to 113 km/h.

Several major bridges in Rhode Island, which stitch together much of the state, were briefly shuttered on Sunday, and some coastal roads were nearly impassable.

President Joe Biden approved emergency declarations for Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

People watch as waves crash in South Kingstown, R.I., on Sunday. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Westerly resident Collette Chisholm, a 20-year resident, said while the waves were much higher than normal, she wasn't concerned about her home suffering extensive damage.

"I love storms," she said. "I think they're exciting, as long as no one gets hurt."

In Newport, Paul and Cherie Saunders were riding out the storm in a home that her family has owned since the late 1950s. Their basement flooded with 1.5 metres 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 Sunday.

Some communities in central New Jersey were inundated with as much as 20 centimetres 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 that "significant flooding" led to multiple vehicles submerged in flooded areas.

In a region where the ground in many areas is saturated from recent rains, the forecast had some fearing the worst effects of the rainfall were still to come.

Vehicles submerged in floodwater are seen in Helmetta, N.J., on Sunday. (Tom Brenner/AFP/Getty Images)

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, exacerbated when bands of rain set up east of the city, a phenomenon meteorologists call "training."

"You're seeing a little bit of that training in the New Jersey/New York area, even as the storm itself is a little to the east and the northeast," Shepherd said. "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."

Some in New England cautioned against complacency, warning that Henri — if it does stall and dump multiple inches of rainfall — had the potential to inflict damage similar to tropical storm Irene in August 2011.

A fallen utility pole is seen in New Bedford, Mass. on Sunday. (Peter Pereira/The Standard-Times via AP)

After Irene roared up the coast, many in the northeast were relieved when the New York City 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 1927 flood. Parts of the state got 28 cm of rain in just 24 hours. Irene killed six in Vermont, left thousands homeless and damaged or destroyed more than 200 bridges and 800 kilometres 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."

Power outages, evacuations

By 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 nursing homes on the shoreline were evacuated, said Paul Mounds, chief of staff for Connecticut's governor. About 250 residents were relocated to other nursing homes, he said. Storm-related flooding was blamed for major delays along Interstate 91 near Hartford.

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 that with the threat to Long Island diminishing, the state's primary concerns were inland areas like the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City.

Waves pound a seawall in Montauk, N.Y., on Sunday. (Craig Ruttle/The Associated Press)

Rainfall in the Catskills "is a significant problem," Cuomo said. "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. I have seen small towns in these mountainous areas devastated by rain. That is still a very real possibility."

U.S. President Joe Biden declared disasters in much of the region, opening the purse strings for federal recovery aid. The White House said Biden discussed preparations with northeastern governors and that New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who succeeds Cuomo on Tuesday, also participated.

Major airports in the region remained open as the storm approached, though hundreds of Sunday's flights were cancelled. 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.

Norbert Weissberg watched the waves from the edge of the parking lot at a beach in East Hampton as strong winds whipped an American flag flying from an unmanned lifeguard chair.

"I'm always excited about seeing something as ferocious as this," he said. "It's less ferocious than I thought. We're all geared up for a major, major calamity, and it's a little less than that."

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