Will Ida’s death count be a warning?

Most died in flash floods that could have been avoided by heeding alerts, experts caution

The official death toll in New Jersey from Tropical Storm Ida stands at 29. But that could rise as high as 30, as one person remains missing. That’s the most deaths suffered by any state after the Sept. 1 storm ripped through the region. And that total is second only to 2012’s Superstorm Sandy for storm deaths in New Jersey history.

But unlike Sandy, most of the deaths from Ida were caused by flash flooding. That’s a grim fact that some hope will serve as a warning for future storms.

“It’s a simple one, what the weather service says, ‘Turn around, don’t drown,’” said David Robinson, the state climatologist and a professor at Rutgers University. “But I am not casting aspersions on those who perished and those who had to be rescued. This was an incredibly unusual situation. Mistakes were made; mistakes are always going to be made — we’re human. But if we don’t learn from them, we’re bound to repeat them.”

In cases where the circumstances are known, 21 perished because they were either in a car or on foot in fast-flowing flood waters. The woman who is still missing also was swept away by rain that turned roads into rushing rivers. A number of the deaths happened in places not prone to flooding in the past.

The death toll had stood at 27 for several days after the storm, with four missing. Then the bodies of two of the missing were found in the Passaic River in Kearny last Wednesday and Thursday. Last Friday, a medical examiner identified them as Nidhi Rana and Ayush Rana, two college students and friends whose car became swamped in Passaic and then reportedly was pulled by floodwaters into a culvert running into the river.

Central Jersey hit hard

Those deaths occurred primarily in central Jersey, along the path of greatest rainfall, as mapped by the National Weather Service. Data from the Rutgers University Weather Network show some of the highest totals on Sept. 1 in places where people died: Two drowned in cars in Hillsborough, which registered almost 8.7 inches of rain, and two died in or outside vehicles in Hopewell Township, which got some 7.8 inches.

In some places, police trying to help stranded motorists wound up needing to be rescued. In Hopewell, where emergency responders performed 50 overnight water rescues, an officer trying to help one motorist found his vehicle swept into the rising waters of Stony Brook. He left his vehicle and was carried about 100 yards by the deep, flowing water when he was able to grab a tree. Two more officers who came to assist the driver wound up in the same predicament. Several area fire companies finally rescued the officers.

“We easily could have lost three officers last night,” Bob Karmazin, the township police director, said the next day.

Robinson said so much flash flooding from such smaller water bodies as brooks, streams and creeks was caused by the volume of rain that fell so quickly, as much as 3 inches in an hour. In a Sept. 2 tweet, the National Weather Service Eastern Region office provided a map of rainfall totals over the previous 48 hours and stated, “Newark NJ received 3.24″ from 8-9 pm & Central Park saw 3.15″ from 9-10 pm, both all time records for highest 1-hour rainfall totals.”

The state’s infrastructure is built to handle heavy rain, Robinson said, but it couldn’t handle that kind of pummeling: 8 inches of rain in six hours is considered essentially a 1,000-year storm event.

The reason central Jersey got so much rain was because Ida converged with another frontal system over the state, which led to the increased moisture and intensity.

“So it became a super soaker, I guess you could say,” Robinson said. “What was quite notable with this event was the rapidity in which the rain fell … This was essentially a six-hour rain event for those areas hit hardest.”

While the state has seen storms like this in the past — Hurricane Floyd in 1999 brought significant flash flooding and six deaths — another factor that likely brought more fatalities was that the hardest rains and flooding hit the state at night, in the dark, when it was harder for motorists to see what they were driving into, he said.

‘Climate change underpins all of our weather events’

Robinson said it’s hard to specifically blame climate change for any one powerful storm, but said there’s no question that it plays a role.

“Climate change underpins all of our weather events today,” he said. “It makes warm days warmer. It makes rainy days rainier. There’s evidence that we prime the atmosphere a little bit more with energy now and with moisture because the atmosphere is warmer and the oceans are warmer.”

Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, went further though, saying the devastation from the storm shows that the state needs to move more aggressively toward green energy due to climate change.

“Ida is a wakeup call for New Jersey,” he said.

Potosnak said his neighborhood in Somerset County flooded, and there were rising rivers in places that had never seen water before. He said the unexpected nature of this flooding is evident in how many lives were lost and the severity of the climate crisis.

“No one will be spared from these storms,” he said. “Everyone is on the front lines of climate change … I don’t know how you put a value on a life lost during a storm. Hurricane Ida is the cost of our inaction. Moving forward with green energy is the only way to save lives and costs in the long run.”

Emergency warning systems

Robinson said emergency warning systems did their job, if not perfectly. Notices of flash flooding and tornadoes blared on cell phones throughout the evening, and local emergency officials also put out notices.

“We’ll never know how many lives were saved, but without question lives are saved with tornado warnings and flash flood warnings,” he said. “But the fact that so many people were out on the road in this speaks of the fact that we need to understand the communication factor … You can put out the best forecast, the best observations, the best communication, and if the person receiving that information doesn’t understand it, appreciate it and know how to respond, what good is it?”

— Genesis Obando and Katie Crist contributed to this story.

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