Irene causes dangerous flooding across region
Dangerous flooding threatened residents of Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey early Sunday, as Hurricane Irene washed over the region with slow, damaging bands of heavy rain.
The storm barreled into the Philadelphia region and the Jersey shore late Saturday, then pushed further north up the East Coast. Irene chased hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and from shore vacations; thousands ended up in temporary shelters.
But, as of 5 a.m. Sunday, the most serious result of the storm was flood water, rising alarmingly fast. Boats were brought in overnight to try to get to people trapped by rising water in cars, homes and apartments in Upper Moreland, Abington, Willow Grove and other parts of Montgomery County, according to a dispatcher.
In Upper Moreland early Sunday morning, a boat of rescuers overturned, and the rescuers had to be rescued themselves. None was hurt.
In North Philadelphia Sunday, a building that housed a Chinese restaurant and a home collapsed after heavy rains. Rescuers searched for the occupants of the home, but later said they were believed to be unharmed.
The flooding is far from over. As of 3 a.m., Chester Creek was already about eight feet over flood stage and still rising.
McDade Boulevard in Darby Borough was also underwater as Darby Creek overflowed - a painful reminder in Darby, which flooded catastrophically in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd.
In Philadelphia at 4 a.m. Sunday, high water from the Schuylkill swamped Kelly Drive and Chestnut Street near the Chestnut Street bridge. The Delaware poured into the intersection of Spring Garden Street and Delaware Avenue.
The National Weather Service said the entire region would remain under a flash flood warning until 11:30 a.m. Sunday. The warning covered the following counties: Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania; Camden, Burlington, Atlantic, Ocean, Cape May, Monmouth, Gloucester, Middlesex, Mercer, Cumberland, Somerset and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey, and New Castle county in Delaware.
President Obama declared Pennsylvania and New Jersey as disaster areas, worthy of federal aid, on Saturday.
Saturday evening, Mayor Nutter declared the first state of emergency in Philadelphia since 1986. He warned that some residents could lose power for more than a week, and said the Schuylkill was expected to crest at 8 feet above normal. That would be several feet above flood stage and a level, he said, that has not occurred since 1869.
“This is one of the worst storm events that has hit Philadelphia in the last 50 years,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of business and residents throughout the region had lost power by late Saturday, utilities reported.
Tornado warnings were issued late Saturday in Philadelphia and other parts of the region. Twisters did touch down in Vineland, N.J., and near Lewes, Del., where fire officials reported one house was demolished.
But the more serious concern was flooding.
Major flooding was expected to continue Sunday along the Delaware River at New Hope and Easton, with other areas from Trenton north expecting moderate flooding.
“We have flooding issues on many roadways throughout the region, mainly in Montgomery County and Bucks County,” said PennDOT spokesman Eugene Blaum about 12:30 a.m.
Early Sunday, Lower Merion Township Police urged residents to stay home, warning that “numerous trees are currently blocking roads and many locations are experiencing flooding conditions. The locations are too numerous to list.”
Impassable because of flooding during Saturday evening were Cobbs Creek Parkway, the Spring Garden Street tunnel near the Art Museum, Delaware Avenue at Spring Garden Street, and the intersection at 34th and Girard — to name a few locations.
The Christina River and White Clay Creek in Delaware were expected to overflow Sunday as well.
The damage at the Jersey shore seemed to be significant. At 5 a.m., as the eye of the storm passed Atlantic City and downbeach communities, the ocean was surging toward the dunes, a frothy roaring freight train of water. Winds were steady and whipped with sand, and beach block and bay flooding was fairly widespread.
Around 4 a.m., most of the beach blocks in Ventnor and Margate were flooded. The waters had washed debris into the streets, and the high tide had left sand. Some waves lapped over the jetty at the point of Longport.
Margate police said there was some back bay and other street flooding and some downed wires but no other serious problems.
Saturday at 8 p.m., on New Jersey Avenue in North Wildwood, the road that welcomes visitors held water instead, flowing from curb to curb like a river. Street signs rattled back and forth. Waves crashed over the newly-built rock wall for much of the evening, flooding many back streets.
In the entertainment district, an area that would hold a quarter-million people next month for the annual Irish festival, water was over a foot deep. The entire area was dark, except for the flash of the Hereford Inlet lighthouse every couple of seconds or so.
One North Wildwood police officer fixing a flat tire said there was flooding "everywhere."
Despite clear warnings from officials to expect that level of flooding, as Irene inched north Saturday, it created a tense daylong countdown that left people unsure what to expect — or when.
Early downpours turned to mist, then back to rain. Towns activated emergency plans, malls closed, and trains and planes stopped running.
Delaware County officials evacuated the low-lying areas of Darby, Eddystone, and Chester. Shelters opened from Radnor Township in Delaware County; to Cheltenham, West Norriton, and Pottstown in Montgomery County; to Glassboro in Gloucester County.
In Glassboro, more than 1,100 people packed an American Red Cross shelter at Rowan University’s gymnasium.
As children napped or scrawled in coloring books, Avis Newmones and her nephew, Aaron, sat on folding chairs and played cards with two other evacuees.
“We’ve got to find something to do to pass the time,” Newmones said.
In Philadelphia, the Red Cross opened shelters at Lincoln, Bartram, and Roxborough High Schools. In Camden, shelters at the Malandra Hall and Isabel Miller community centers will remain open until 8 a.m. Monday, according to city officials.
Earlier Saturday, most major roads to the Jersey Shore were closed to eastbound traffic, and dozens of beach towns ordered residents to evacuate. Even 30 Wawa stores — the last line of defense for people in search of storm supplies — closed in Cape May, Ocean, and Atlantic Counties.
But some treated the hurricane with indifference, deciding it was hyped and not worth changing their routine.
In Manayunk, a neighborhood accustomed to Schuylkill floods, some residents stacked sandbags in front of their homes as others sipped coffee at sidewalk cafes or jogged along the river trail. A wedding reception went on.
More than one million people obeyed warnings to flee the New Jersey coast, but officials struggled to persuade thousands more who refused to move inland.
“Units are driving around making the announcement: As soon as the storm truly hits, you’re on your own,” said Michael Cahill, a fire department captain in Ventnor, where he estimated 1,100 people had ignored the evacuation order.
In Cape May, residents who did not heed the evacuation were being told Saturday night to stay put, said Lenora Boninfante, county communications director.
Earlier in the day, Gov. Christie had dispatched buses and personnel to a half-dozen Atlantic City high-rises to coax 600 residents — mostly seniors — from their units and into shelters off the island.
At one site, the Best of Life senior apartments, 76-year-old manager Dorothea Arlotta said she “couldn’t care less” about Christie’s edict.
“We are absolutely safe,” Arlotta insisted. “When you get older, creature comforts are very important. … We’re all in here together, and we take care of each other.”
In Atlantic City, Charles Collins, 58, watched his girlfriend leave but said he planned to ride the storm out in his fourth-floor apartment.
“I’ll take out my AC and shore up the windows,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be that bad.”
In neighboring Margate, Leo Heintzelman was conducting business as usual.
“We never close,” said Heintzelman, owner of Dino’s Sub Shop, as he sold subs to go. “We’ve been open since 1960, and the rule is you close Thanksgiving and Christmas — and that’s it.”
In North Wildwood, Mayor Bill Henfey said many people had volunteered to stay in town, including lifeguards. “We need people who can swim — well,” he said.
By Monday, the storm is expected to have given way to nice weather. But the aftermath of Irene will linger.
Some schools scheduled to be open Monday were already canceling classes. The University of Delaware, among other colleges, said it would postpone the start of the school year for freshmen.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Corbett said runoff from North Jersey and New York would surge into the Delaware River for days.
“This event may not be just a 24-hour event when you consider the flooding,” he said. “The river may not crest until sometime Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Such predictions were what stirred Dan Margo, owner of Peter Wallace Ltd., an antiques store on the Delaware in Lambertville, N.J., to haul hundreds of his items to higher ground.
“If you think it’s going to flood, you just do it,” Margo said.
Inquirer staff writers John P. Martin, Amy S. Rosenberg, Maya Rao, Sally Downey, Jennifer Lin, Faye Flam, Jaqueline L. Urgo, Claudia Vargas, James Osborne and Peter Mucha contributed to this article, as did Daily News writer Jason Nark.