Henri weakened slightly early on Sunday, losing hurricane status and becoming a tropical storm as it was slated to pummel a long stretch of the north-eastern US coastline. Millions on New York’s Long Island and in southern New England braced for the possibility of flooding, toppled trees and extended power outages.
With the center of the storm projected to pass just off the eastern tip of Long Island by midday, hurricane warnings extended from coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island to the luxurious oceanfront estates of the Hamptons in New York.
In an 8am ET update from the US National Hurricane Center (NHC), the storm had maximum sustained winds of 70mph, just shy of hurricane status. The highest winds measured were 75mph, off the coast of Rhode Island.
The first thunderstorms bringing what could be up to half a foot of rain arrived late on Saturday and flash flooding began in some areas overnight. Bands of heavy rain overwhelmed storm drains and drivers plowed through foot-deep water in a few spots in New York City and Newark and Hoboken, New Jersey.
Tropical storm-intensity winds were beginning to strike the coast on Sunday morning. Rising tide threatened to produce dangerous storm surge.
People in the projected path of the storm spent Saturday stocking up on groceries and gasoline. Those close to the coast boarded up windows and in some cases evacuated.
Residents and visitors were urged to evacuate Fire Island, a narrow strip of sandy villages barely above sea level off the southern coast of Long Island. The last boats out left before 11pm on Saturday and officials warned there might be no way to reach people left behind
Severe weather also cut short a superstar-laden concert in Central Park. The show headlined by Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Jennifer Hudson was meant to celebrate New York City’s recovery from the coronavirus. Officials asked concertgoers to leave the park during Barry Manilow’s set, amid the threat of lightning.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, set to leave office on Monday after resigning over a sexual harassment scandal, pleaded with New York residents to make last-minute preparations, warning that heavy rain, wind and storm surge from Henri could be as devastating as Superstorm Sandy back in 2012.
“We have short notice,” Cuomo said.
Governor Ned Lamont warned Connecticut residents to “shelter in place” from Sunday afternoon through at least Monday morning as the state braced for its first possible direct hit from a hurricane in decades. Rhode Island governor Dan McKee issued a similar warning.
Some gas stations from Cape Cod to Long Island sold out of fuel. Southampton town supervisor Jay Schneiderman described a run on supplies like batteries and flashlights as people “are starting to wake up” as weather models showed the storm’s center would run “smack on the town of Southampton”.
“We have a lot of wealthy people. There’s no doubt that we do, but everybody pulls together in an emergency,” Schneiderman said. “So, you know, yeah, there are people hanging out on their yachts at the moment drinking martinis, but they’re also starting to talk about this storm and I’m sure they’re going to want to be helpful.”
Major airports remained open as the storm approached, though hundreds of Sunday 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.
The White House said Joe Biden discussed preparations with north-eastern governors and that New York lieutenant governor Kathy Hochul, who succeeds Cuomo on Tuesday, also participated.
Biden later began approving emergency declarations with Rhode Island.
New York hasn’t had a direct hit from a powerful cyclone since Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc in 2012. Some of the most important repairs from that storm have been completed but many projects designed to protect against future storms remain unfinished.
Regardless of Henri’s exact landfall, broad impacts were expected across a large swath of the north-east, extending inland to Hartford, Connecticut and Albany, New York and eastward to Cape Cod.
Storm surge between 3ft and 5ft was possible in much of Long Island Sound all the way to Chatham, Massachusetts, and slightly less on Long Island’s Atlantic coast, the NHC said. Flash flooding was possible in inland areas already saturated by recent rain.