WESTERLY — Tropical Storm Henri socked the Northeast with heavy wind and rain as it made landfall Sunday on the coast of Rhode Island, knocking out power to over 100,000 homes and causing deluges that closed bridges, swamped roads and left many people stranded in their vehicles.
Locally, the storm unleashed furious sheets of rain all morning before the eyewall slammed into Westerly at about 12:30 p.m.. As of 5 p.m., National Grid was reporting 9,677 customers without power in Westerly; 4,007 in Hopkinton; 2,829 in Richmond; and 5,674 in Charlestown.
The storm was downgraded from a hurricane before reaching New England, leaving many to breathe a sigh of relief in a region that has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane in decades. There were few early reports of major damage due to wind or surf.
But the storm’s heavy, sustained rains raised concerns about flooding from the storm that threatened to stall over the region before pivoting to the East and moving out to the Atlantic Ocean on Monday night. Some of the highest rain totals were expected inland.
By Sunday afternoon, Henri had sustained winds of about 50 mph as it moved inland across Connecticut, according to the National Hurricane Center. When it made landfall near Westerly, it had sustained winds of about 60 mph and gusts of up to 70 mph.
Several major bridges in Rhode Island, which stitch together much of the state, were briefly shuttered Sunday, and some coastal roads were nearly impassable.
Westerly resident Collette Chisholm, a 20-year resident, said the waves were much higher than normal, but said she wasn’t concerned about her home suffering extensive damage.
“I love storms,” she said. “I think they’re exciting, as long as no one gets hurt.”
In Newport, Paul and Cherie Saunders were riding out the storm in a home that her family has owned since the late 1950s. Their basement flooded with 5 feet of water during Superstorm Sandy nine years ago.
“This house has been through so many hurricanes and so many things have happened,” said Cherie Saunders, 68. “We’re just going to wait and see what happens.”
Battening the hatches
Earlier in the day, Westerly Town Manager J. Mark Rooney and Police Chief Shawn Lacey held a Zoom briefing from the Westerly Police Headquarters detailing their plans to keep the town safe. The No. 1 takeaway: Stay home.
Each of the town’s fire departments called in volunteers to stand ready should they be needed to respond to emergencies, Lacey said.
Department of Public Works employees were on duty and staged at the town garage in case they were needed to shut down specific roads or respond to other emergencies. By about 10:30 a.m., Lacey said, Atlantic Avenue was impassable due to pooling water. The Bay Street section of Watch Hill was also experiencing flood conditions, Lacey said. Lighthouse Road in Watch Hill was closed due to breaching water.
“If you do not have to go some place do not go out,” Lacey said.
Wave-watchers and other adventurers were also asked to go home.
“If you are at the beach get out,” Lacey said.
About an hour after the news conference, officials closed the Misquamicut section of town entirely.
National Grid is sending crews out to work on restoring power but only if wind speeds are under a certain threshold, Lacey said. The company has promised to restore all outages that occur within 72 hours of the end of the storm, Lacey said.
As a precautionary measure, National Grid shut off natural gas service from First Street to Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut, where a voluntary evacuation order was issued Saturday night. Residents of the area were advised to consider evacuating by 9 a.m. this morning.
The gas service was shut off to reduce risk of water getting in gas lines and disrupting service to other segments of the town, said Rooney. Workers with the utility company visited each residence to inform the occupants of the imminent shut off.
Rooney signed an emergency declaration which gives him the authority to implement mandatory evacuation orders. The declaration will also help the town receive state and federal aid for cleanup and other expenses related to the storm, Rooney said.
Officials were concerned about the effect of the high tide expected at about 9:45 Sunday and whether it will cause a significant breach in coastal areas, Rooney said.
South Kingstown High School has been open as a regional shelter since 8 p.m. Saturday. Strict COVID-19 precautions are in place at the shelter where the American Red Cross is providing food and water.
History of storms
Rhode Island has been hit by hurricanes and tropical storms periodically — including Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Bob in 1991. The city of Providence sustained so much flooding damage from a hurricane in 1938 and Hurricane Carol in 1954 that it built a hurricane barrier in the 1960s to protect its downtown from a storm surge coming up Narragansett Bay. That barrier — and newer gates built nearby — were closed Sunday.
Some communities in central New Jersey were inundated with as much as 8 inches of rain by midday Sunday. In Jamesburg, television video footage showed flooded downtown streets and cars almost completely submerged.
In Newark, Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara said police and firefighters rescued 86 people in 11 incidents related to the storm. He said “significant flooding” led to multiple vehicles submerged in flooded areas.
In a region where the ground in many areas is saturated from recent rains, the forecast had some fearing the worst effects of the rainfall were still to come.
Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia and former president of the American Meteorological Society, said Henri was reminiscent in some ways of Hurricane Harvey, a slow-moving storm that decimated the Houston area in 2017, exacerbated when bands of rain set up east of the city, a phenomenon meteorologists call “training.”
“You’re seeing a little bit of that training in the New Jersey/New York area, even as the storm itself is a little to the east and the northeast,” Shepherd said. “To the west side of the storm, you have a banding feature that has literally been stationary — sitting there and dumping rain. That will be a significant hazard for the New York and New Jersey area.”
Some in New England cautioned against complacency, warning that Henri — if it does stall and dump multiple inches of rainfall — had the potential to inflict damage similar to Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.
After Irene roared up the coast, many in the Northeast were relieved when the New York City area largely was spared. But then the storm settled over the Green Mountains, and Irene became the biggest natural disaster to hit Vermont since an epic 1927 flood. Parts of the state got 11 inches of rain in just 24 hours. Irene killed six in Vermont, left thousands homeless, and damaged or destroyed more than 200 bridges and 500 miles of highway.
“I remember Irene and media outlets outside Vermont brushing it aside as if no big deal while it hit Vermont,” Robert Welch, a podcaster, tweeted Sunday. “I’ll relax when I see it at sea on radar.”
By Sunday afternoon, power outages affected over 78,000 customers in Rhode Island, 32,000 in Connecticut, 9,000 in Massachusetts and 4,000 in New York.
In Connecticut, four nursing homes on the shoreline were evacuated, according to Paul Mounds, chief of staff for Connecticut’s governor. About 250 residents were relocated to other nursing homes, he said. Storm-related flooding was blamed for major delays along Interstate 91 near Hartford.
In one of his final appearances as governor before he is set to step down at the end of Monday over a sexual harassment scandal, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that with the threat to Long Island diminishing, the state’s primary concern were inland areas like the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, which was projected to get inches of rain over the next few days.
Rainfall in the Catskills “is a significant problem,” Cuomo said. “In the Hudson Valley you have hills, you have creeks, the water comes running down those hills and turns a creek into a ravaging river. I have seen small towns in these mountainous areas devastated by rain. That is still a very real possibility.”
President Joe Biden declared disasters in much of the region, opening the purse strings for federal recovery aid. The White House said Biden discussed preparations with northeastern governors and that New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who succeeds Cuomo on Tuesday, also participated.
Major airports in the region remained open as the storm approached, though hundreds of Sunday’s flights were canceled. Service on some branches of New York City’s commuter rail system was suspended through Sunday, as was Amtrak service between New York and Boston.
Norbert Weissberg watched the waves from the edge of the parking lot at a beach in East Hampton as strong winds whipped an American flag flying from an unmanned lifeguard chair.
“I’m always excited about seeing something as ferocious as this,” said Weissberg. “It’s less ferocious than I thought. We’re all geared up for a major, major calamity, and it’s a little less than that.”
Staff writer Dale P. Faulkner reported from Westerly.
Kunzelman reported from Newport, Rhode Island. Porter reported from New York. Associated Press writers William J. Kole in Warwick, Rhode Island, Michelle Smith in Providence, Rhode Island, Michael R. Sisak and Julie Tucker from East Hampton, and Michael Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.