One of the most disruptive storms in the region’s weather history was blamed Thursday for killing five people, inciting record flood levels, spawning at least seven tornadoes — one of them spinning at 150 mph — and leaving some people disbelieving what they had experienced.
Record flooding along the Schuylkill and significant spillage from the Delaware forced evacuation of homes and swamped businesses, and rendered major highways impassable.
The Vine Street Expressway remained closed Thursday night, along with more than 40 road closures in the suburbs, PennDot reported.
The city was spared tornado damage this go-round, but its northern and western suburbs and South Jersey weren’t.
“You can’t imagine the damage,” said Giny Cairon-Vitelli, who lives in Upper Dublin, Montgomery County, where a woman was killed when a tornado sent a tree crashing through her house. “This is just crushing.”
At least four other deaths were reported, including that of a 65-year-old man who drove into floodwaters of the Unami Creek.
Across the Delaware River in Mullica Hill, Gloucester County, an EF-3 tornado with top winds of 150 mph blew debris “a thousand feet in the air,” according to the National Weather Service, whose investigators were examining eight possible tornado sites. The twister raced across the feed cornfields of the state’s biggest dairy farm, destroying acres of the crop, damaging every building, and killing three of the farm’s 1,400 cows.
EF-3′s are rare around here, but another one devastated areas of Bensalem Township during the supercell thunderstorm outbreak on July 29.
Gov. Phil Murphy attributed 25 deaths statewide to the storm.
The Delaware and Schuylkill ingested mass quantities of water upstream of the Philadelphia region, and it eventually added to what was pouring into the waterways around here. Major flooding was reported Thursday along the Perkiomen, Brandywine, Neshaminy, and Assunpink Creeks.
Dozens of sewage and stormwater pipes overflowed during the surge from Ida’s remnants Wednesday into Thursday, emptying untreated water directly into Philadelphia’s major waterways, according to data from the city’s Water Department.
Montgomery County recorded 452 water rescues, said Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh. The previous high was 135, during Isaias in August. More than 75 people were rescued from their homes by boat in the Montgomery County borough of Bridgeport as the neighboring Schuylkill swelled to record levels in the wake of Ida, borough manager Keith Truman said Thursday.
In Philadelphia, the Vine Street Expressway was turned into a virtual river, with water almost touching overpasses. And along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the Made In America festival is still a go for the weekend, an evacuation of the Parktowne Apartments, which has more than 900 units, was ordered.
Rain amounts were prodigious north and west of I-95, with close to 9.5 inches measured in Coatesville, where some areas were under 15 feet of water.
Rain totals generally were substantially less south and east of the city, however. The highest total reported from South Jersey was 4.5 inches, and for some parts of the region, this was a generic rainstorm attached to a name.
But while the damage wasn’t as geographically pervasive as it has been in some previous storms, it is safe to say that for local impacts it would rank with those related to Sandy, in 2012; Irene, in 2011; and Floyd, in 1999.
Year of the remnants
Ida’s represented the third tropical storm remnants to affect the region this summer, and by far the most prolific rain producer.
The amounts that fell along the corridor of the heaviest rains north and west of I-95 would be expected once every 40 to 50 years, said Marouane Temimi, urban hydrology expert with Stevens Institute of Technology in northern New Jersey.
But given the antecedent rains and the wet soil, the impacts might have been closer to those of a 100-year event, he said.
And Ida’s were the second remnants to be a tornado-producer around here. Last month with the passage of Fred’s remains, a twister traveled almost nine miles from Hatfield Township, Montgomery County, to near the Bedminster Township, Bucks County, border.
Tropical storms and their remains are notorious for spinning up tornadoes, said Bill Bunting, the chief of the forecast operations branch at the government’s Storm Prediction Center, in Norman, Okla.
They import copious moisture to higher latitudes where they interact with upper-air westerlies in such a way that winds above the ground can blow at different directions, a crucial ingredient for giving tornadoes their spin, he said.
For whatever reasons, the region has been particularly ripe for a phenomenon more common to Tornado Alley. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have far exceeded their average numbers of tornadoes.
“The atmosphere can certainly get into a pattern,” said Bunting. “We’ve seen that.”
What the storm center saw Wednesday morning was an ideal environment over the entire region and hoisted a tornado watch from the Lehigh Valley to the Jersey barrier islands.
It was warranted. The weather service confirmed seven tornadoes in the region, four in Pennsylvania, three in New Jersey.
The fallout and the fatalities
“This is just a horrible situation,” said Mark Harris, next-door neighbor of Maxine Weinstein, whom neighbors identified as the woman who died after a tree trapped her inside her home in Upper Dublin.
“No one can tell me this wasn’t a tornado,” he said. The weather service said Harris is right. It confirmed that a tornado with winds up to 130 mph, an EF-2, tore through the township on a path that took it all the way to Horsham.
He described Weinstein as a wonderful, conscientious neighbor, and said he was beyond saddened at her death.
Harris said Maxine’s husband spent the night with him in his basement after the storm knocked down multiple trees on their properties.
The other deaths evidently were the result of drownings.
A 65-year-old Perkiomenville man who drove into the floodwaters of Unami Creek in Bucks County was pronounced dead Thursday, Pennsylvania State Police said.
Michael Nastasi, 51, evidently died of an accidental drowning, according to Chester County Coroner Christina VanDePol, but the circumstances remained under investigation. Police in Downingtown found him unresponsive inside his vehicle. Investigators believe the rapid floodwaters swept away his vehicle.
Arkoosh said that two deaths in Montgomery County also appeared to be drownings, one involving a motor vehicle, the other inside a house. She said the county coroner was investigating.
It’s not quite over. After the record crests along the Schuylkill, a flood warning remains in effect from Montgomery County to 30th Street in Philadelphia until 3 p.m. Friday.
The Delaware was due to rise to minor flood levels sometime early Friday. Perhaps as a reward for enduring the ordeal, the region is in for two more splendid September days with sun and temperatures in the 70s.
And no rain is in the forecast. At least not until Sunday.
Staff writers Heather Khalifa, Frank Kummer, Diane Mastrull, Laura McCrystal, Justine McDaniel, Robert Moran, Astrid Rodriques, and Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.