Before the sun rose and the storm’s glowing clouds broke, the Vine Street Expressway in Philadelphia was underwater. People on a low-lying Coatesville street had climbed onto their roofs and balconies to escape the rising floods. Emergency responders were going door-to-door in rescue boats.
“There’s no words,” said Amy Hylenski, who waded with her two sons through knee-deep floodwaters in their Bridgeport living room to get to a rescue boat outside before dawn Thursday. “It just came too fast. You [could] never be prepared for this.”
While twister-like winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida ravaged some areas across the Philadelphia region, for many others it was the water unleashed by the storm that brought a night of terror and day of grief. Its punishing rainfall swelled rivers and waterways to never-before-seen levels, causing floods from Bensalem to Center City to Phoenixville.
“Water is unrelenting,” said Audrey Kenny, the emergency services director for Bucks County, “especially when it’s angry like it was last night.”
The rainfall totals were stunning: More than 9 inches in Coatesville, 8 in Perkasie, and 8 in Phoenixville. In central Jersey, Mercer and Hunterdon Counties saw 9 or more inches.
Thousands of calls poured into 911 centers, and emergency responders in boats rescued hundreds of people whose streets were swallowed under the Schuylkill, Delaware River, and their tributaries. The Schuylkill rose to a record nearly 27 feet at Norristown; Neshaminy Creek reached 23 feet at Penns Park; and Perkiomen Creek surpassed 20 at Graterford.
In Bucks County, troopers tried but couldn’t reach 65-year-old Donald Bauer in his car as the Unami Creek flooded late Wednesday. When they finally got to him Thursday morning, he was dead. In Chester County, 51-year-old Michael Nastasi was killed when rapid floodwaters swept away his car in Downingtown, investigators said.
Two unidentified Montgomery County residents also drowned. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said most of the 23 people who died in that state in the storm had been “overtaken by the water” while driving.
Even as the water began to recede, its impact rippled. It knocked out a Peco substation near Norristown, caused closures on major thoroughfares including Kelly Drive, I-76, and Route 309, and had grocery stores like the partially flooded Giant Riverwalk at 23rd and Arch Streets scrambling to salvage their stock.
Guido Abbate stayed at his Main Street Manayunk restaurant overnight, stacking sandbags and hoping to keep the rising water from entering Pizzeria L’Angolo. But as 5 a.m. Thursday neared, he gave up.
“It was so high that [we] just left,” he said. “Nothing you can do.”
As the sun rose, car alarms going haywire blared on blocks across the region and debris was strewn across streets. In hard-hit neighborhoods, people sorted through ruined belongings and waited for the water to leave their homes; they agonized over insurance and searched for mementos; and pulled waterlogged furniture onto their lawns.
“It’s like the Titanic,” said Sarah Sewell, 24, who watched the tide rise over her Conshohocken street and into her first-floor neighbors’ apartments. “The building is just completely filled down there.”
Just east in Manayunk, Bobby Konidaris ran pumps to empty his restaurant, Zesty’s, spewing gallons of water out from the basement to the sidewalk. In 30 years, the restaurant hadn’t seen such flooding, and he estimated it would take three weeks to clean up and reopen. Deeper into the city, in Fitler Square, Melissa Levush searched for words to describe watching Schuylkill water pour into her Pine Street basement through the plumbing.
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By afternoon, as spectators gathered at vantage points to see the muddied and fast-moving rivers and local officials implored people to stay off the roads, the enormity of the water’s power was becoming clear. Darlene Jennings sank onto her Coatesville stoop, yellow caution tape wrapped over the porch banister, and cried.
For the second time in just three months, she’s facing repairs for the home. In June, the heating system and her tenants’ belongings were destroyed after heavy rains flooded the basement with about 5 feet of water.
On Thursday, flooded again, her tenants told her they want out. She doesn’t blame them, but now the $1,300-per-month mortgage is on her, plus the out-of-pocket repairs.
As she wandered through the 121-year-old twin, its original hardwood floors already beginning to warp and the smell of mildew blooming, she dropped her hands by her side, defeated.
“It’s really traumatic,” she said.
And it wasn’t really over. As many like Jennings faced cleanup, others were still waiting for the worst: In some parts, the swollen waterways were not expected to crest until Thursday night, including Bucks County.
Stay home, Commissioner Bob Harvie said, warning residents: “We’re not out of the woods.”
Staff journalists Oona Goodin-Smith, Vinny Vella, John Duchneskie, Diane Mastrull, Lauren Schneiderman, Tyger Williams, Alejandro Alvarez, Jenn Ladd, Andrew Maykuth, Erin McCarthy, and Nick Vadala contributed to this article.