NORTH BABYLON, N.Y. — A record-setting rainstorm dumped more than a foot of water on parts of suburban New York in a matter of hours, turning highways into streams that stranded hundreds of drivers, flooded basements and caused at least one fatal crash.
“We’ve had another historic extreme weather event here,” Steve Bellone, the Suffolk County Executive, said at a news conference today outside the North Babylon firehouse where dozens of stranded drivers were brought for shelter during the height of the storm.
The National Weather Service said a summer’s worth of rain fell within a few hours — over 13 inches at MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma. That was more than the area’s normal total for June, July and August of 11.75 inches.
More than 5 inches fell in just a one-hour period, from 5 to 6 a.m. today, said weather service meteorologist Joe Pollina. He said the previous state record for rainfall over a 24-hour period was 11.6 inches near Tannersville during Tropical Storm Irene three years ago.
Bellone said most municipal sewer systems can handle about 5 inches of rain in 24 hours. “What happened today was unprecedented,” he said.
One person died when an SUV was hit by a tractor-trailer carrying waste oil on the Long Island Expressway near Dix Hills during the height of the storm, according to Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke. He said it appeared the SUV was driving slowly when it was hit by the larger vehicle. The person who died was in the SUV was not immediately identified; Burke said the body was burned beyond recognition.
No charges were immediately filed, but police said the weather-related crash was still under investigation.
Volunteer firefighters in communities across Long Island used trucks and equipment ordinarily used to fight brush fires to rescue stranded drivers. The trucks stand high off the ground and can maneuver through several feet of water.
On the Southern State Parkway in North Babylon, firefighters encountered approximately 50 vehicles either stuck in the rising waters or pulled off to an elevated apron on the side of the highway.
“We had occupants climbing out of windows because they couldn’t open their doors,” said Lt. Timothy Harrington, the first firefighter on scene. “Some of the water was over the vehicles’ roofs. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
No injuries were reported among the stranded drivers, officials said.
James Piano, of Islip Terrace, was rescued by firefighters in North Babylon after his truck was swamped with waist-high water.
“That little Miata over there was floating in the middle lane, literally floating,” Piano said.
By midmorning, the water subsided there and traffic began moving again along a road surface coated with a slippery-looking film of oil, dirt and grass.
Officials reported few power outages resulting from the storm.
Some south shore Long Island communities slammed by Superstorm Sandy nearly two years ago were experiencing certain flashbacks as roads were closed and some homeowners were dealing with flooded basements.
Gerard Kapetanakis said there was about four inches of rain in his basement in Lindenhurst. “There was so much water there was no place for it to go,” said the construction worker.
Laura Cutuli, a nurse, never made it to her job today at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
Her stranded car was filling with water, so she had rolled down her windows to “rescue myself if I had to.” Instead, firefighters aided her and other motorists.
“We were standing in the water,” Cutuli said. She said it was cold, dark and “just surreal.”
The storm dumped varying amounts of rain as it passed over the Northeast.
New York City ranged from under an inch in Central Park to over 3 inches at Kennedy Airport.
But parts of New Jersey also got more than 7 inches. Several homes were evacuated in Millville, New Jersey, because of flooding.
Baltimore got 6.3 inches, its highest rain total since 1933 and the second-highest since measurements were first taken in 1871.
In Rhode Island today, manhole covers were swept off by water that filled the streets in Providence.
The same system dumped rain on Michigan earlier in the week. Portions of several Detroit-area freeways remained closed this morning as crews worked to remove mud, trash, abandoned vehicles and other debris.