Tropical Storm Henri makes landfall in Rhode Island

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Waves pound the seawall in Montauk, N.Y., Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, as Tropical Storm Henri affects the Atlantic coast. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

WESTERLY, R.I. (AP) — Tropical Storm Henri hit the coast of Rhode Island Sunday, packing high winds that knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes and bands of rain that led to flash flooding from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

The storm was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, and made landfall near Westerly, R.I., Sunday afternoon with sustained winds of about 60 mph and gusts of up to 70 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Henri has since weakened and now has sustained winds of 50 mph as it moves inland.

There were few early reports of major damage due to wind or surf, but officials warned of the danger of spot flooding in inland areas over the next few days.

Millions in southern New England and New York braced for the possibility of toppled trees, extended power outages and flooding from a storm system that threatened to linger over the region well into Monday.

National Grid reported 74,000 customers without power in Rhode Island and over 28,000 customers were affected by outages in Connecticut.

As the winds and rain gave way to sun and blue skies, some who lost power in Westerly began clearing debris or took a stroll to survey the effects of the storm.

Sisters Carolyn and Meredith Mase were visiting cousins in Charlestown, Rhode Island, this weekend when Henri hit. The storm knocked out power to their beach house, but they were undeterred and planned to spend the afternoon walking the beach and playing board games.

Most of their neighbors stayed through the storm, too. Carolyn Mase said the storm’s approach was apparent on Saturday as the waves built in strength through the day. The water, she said, seemed unusually warm, making it an especially nice day to swim. Saturday night, she said, someone set off fireworks on the beach.

“We were not worried,” said Carolyn Mase, who now lives in Providence, R.I. “We figured it probably wouldn’t be that bad, and it wasn’t.”

Most local restaurants and businesses closed in preparation for the storm. Some that stayed open closed anyway when the power shut off. The local Stop & Shop grocery store stayed open, and Kimmie Chambers drove there as soon as the winds died down. Chambers said she had decided to spend the day baking, and found she was missing a key ingredient.

“I needed chocolate,” Chambers said. She has seen hurricanes before, she explained. “I’m from South Carolina. I’ve seen a lot worse.”

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.

Several major bridges in Rhode Island, which stitch together much of the state, were briefly shuttered Sunday, and some coastal roads were nearly impassable.

Storm-related flooding was blamed for major delays in the Hartford suburb of Wethersfield along Interstate 91 northbound, a major artery through Connecticut’s capital city. Brian Foley, special assistant to the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, tweeted that traffic was reduced to one lane and there were multiple accidents. Traffic cameras showed numerous vehicles backed up. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont on Twitter urged motorists to “avoid the area while crews work to address the situation.”

In Branford, Connecticut, 61-year-old geologist Paul Muniz was busy securing his boat in anticipation of the storm. Muniz lives close to the marina and has survived previous storms, and spent $50,000 to elevate his home 9 feet off the ground.

“I’ve lived here for 32 years, had an opportunity to move a number of times, but you know, it’s a very special place,” Muniz said.

While the wind was significant in certain areas, experts warned that the storm’s biggest threat likely will come from storm surge and inland flooding, caused by what are expected to be heavy and sustained rains. Some of the highest rain totals were expected inland.

Some communities in central New Jersey were inundated with as much as 8 inches (20 centimeters) by midday Sunday. In Jamesburg, television video footage showed flooded downtown streets and cars almost completely submerged.

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.”

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.

Massachusetts’ Steamship Authority canceled all Sunday ferry service between the mainland and the popular vacation islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket after the U.S. Coast Guard shut down ports on Cape Cod and New Bedford. Tourists waiting in their cars, hoping for a last-minute ferry off the islands, were stranded until the worst of Henri passes.

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.

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.

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.”

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