By Aya Elamroussi, CNN
A mother, father and son died by drowning when the remnants of Hurricane Ida poured catastrophic amounts of rain across the East Coast on Wednesday, leaving at least 50 people dead.
Rosa Espinal, 72, and her husband Jose Torres, 71, along with their 38-year-old son Jose Torres died when more than a dozen feet of water drenched their apartment in a residential complex in Elizabeth, New Jersey, city spokesperson Kelly Martins told CNN Friday. Their neighbor, 33-year-old Shakia Garrett, also drowned, Martins said.
About 20 miles north, rescue workers are searching for two childhood friends whom witnesses say were swept into a storm drain in Passaic Wednesday evening.
Nidhi Rana, 18, and Ayush Rana, 21, are among the six people still missing in New Jersey that crews are trying to locate, Passaic Mayor Hector Lora said. Nidhi’s father, Prakash Rana, said the two are friends and not related.
“It’s such a challenge because there is no moving forward. It’s almost like grief in limbo. You don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know whether you’re grieving a loss, or you are still concerned whether missing individuals can be found — even though everything may say they won’t, you still hope for the very best,” Lora told CNN Friday.
At least 25 people died in New Jersey and 18 died in New York state, according to officials. President Joe Biden has approved an emergency declaration for those two states, the White House said late Thursday.
The storm — by then remnants of a tropical depression — unleashed deadly flooding Wednesday from Virginia to New England, but especially from metro Philadelphia to New Jersey and southern New York. That came after Ida devastated parts of the Gulf Coast as a major hurricane Sunday.
Of the dozens killed in the East, many died in flooded homes — including many in flooded basements — or while overtaken by water in or outside their vehicles. Four people died in Pennsylvania, and one each in Maryland, Connecticut and Virginia in the storm.
In New York City, 10 of the city’s 13 victims were found in illegally converted basement or cellar apartments, officials said Friday.
“We know the basement apartments create a whole set of particular challenges,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his Friday briefing. “We are now going to be speaking — going forward — to people who live in basement apartments, specific messages, specific cell phone alerts, telling people about the vulnerabilities they face in these kinds of rain events.”
Human-induced climate change front and center, mayor says
Parts of the East Coast saw unprecedented rain when Ida steeped areas that were simply not built to withstand volumes of water in such a short period of time.
In particular, New York City was hit by rainfall equivalent to 50,000 Olympic-size pools over five hours, according to CNN meteorologist Pedram Javaheri.
“This is a new world,” de Blasio told CNN on Friday, arguing that the intensity and frequency of storms are rising through climate change and that the country is going to need “entirely different responses.”
With the storm causing so much flash flooding inland, de Blasio said he would consider being more aggressive in the future with pre-storm evacuations and orders to clear streets and subways — steps he said he’d normally reserve for hurricanes or massive blizzards.
A new city task force would determine protocols on when and how to clear the streets and evacuate ahead of storms, he said.
“We’re going to have to be much more aggressive with these tools,” de Blasio told CNN.
As for what to expect with any new policies, de Blasio said these could include sending cellphone alerts to people living in basement apartments ahead of storms. He did not say how soon policies would be established.
More than 800 bridges need inspections in Pennsylvania
Along with astonishing flooding, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic saw at least eight tornadoes Wednesday, four in Pennsylvania, three in New Jersey and one in southeast Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf visited several of the hardest hit locations in Chester and Montgomery counties on Friday.
“There’s no question that we’re doing everything we can (at the) state level, and I know the county and township are doing everything they can to respond as quickly as possible and help with the cleanup and make sure that goes as smoothly as possible,” Wolf said at a news conference.
Following the storm, Wolf said there are two specific areas his administration hopes to improve.
“One is what can we do better to respond when something like this happens,” Wolf said. “The second is, what could we have done differently to prevent some of this from happening.”
The area surrounding Philadelphia was “hit very hard,” Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian said. More than 800 bridges across the state will require inspection due to storm damages, she added.
“Where necessary, we remain in disaster relief mode and we’re ensuring our teams have what they need,” Gramian said in a statement. “As the waters recede, we will conduct post-flood road and bridge assessments and conduct bridge inspections when condition warrants.”
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CNN’s Rob Frehse, Maria Santana, Liam Reilly, Madeline Holcombe, Jason Hanna, Mark Morales, Christina Maxouris and Kiely Westhoff contributed to this report.