US East Coast faces surging rivers, tornado damage and continuing calls for rescue as Hurricane Ida batters the region with record-breaking rain as death toll climbs to 45.

Headstones at a cemetery that flooded are seen in Somerville, NJ, after the remnants of Hurricane Ida walloped the region with record-breaking rain, September 2, 2021.
Headstones at a cemetery that flooded are seen in Somerville, NJ, after the remnants of Hurricane Ida walloped the region with record-breaking rain, September 2, 2021. (AP)

Flash flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida killed more than 45 people in the New York area overnight, including several who perished in basements during the "historic" weather event officials blamed on climate change.

"I'm saddened to report that as of right now, at least 23 New Jerseyans have lost their life to this storm," New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told reporters on Thursday.

Thirteen died in New York City, including 11 who could not escape their basements, police said. The victims ranged from the ages of two to 86.

Three also died in the New York suburb of Westchester, while another four died in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, a local official confirmed.

READ MORE:Storm Ida brings flash flooding, heavy rain to New York City

Deadly floods in Queens

In New York City, Sophy Liu roused her son from bed, put on a life jacket on him and squeezed him into an inflatable swimming ring as their first-floor apartment flooded in Queens.

Unable to open the door against the force of the water, she called friends for help. The water was nearly 1.5 meters (five feet) high when they came to her rescue, she said.

“I was obviously scared, but I had to be strong for my son. I had to calm him down,” she recalled on Thursday as medical examiners removed three bodies from a home down the street.

In another part of Queens, water rapidly filled Deborah Torres' first-floor apartment to her knees as her landlord frantically urged her neighbours below – who included a baby – to get out, she said. But the water rushed in so strongly that she surmised they weren't able to open the door. The three residents died.

“I have no words," she said. “How can something like this happen?”

"Among the people MOST at risk during flash floods here are those living in off-the-books basement dwellings that don't meet the safety codes necessary to save lives," lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

"These are working class, immigrant, and low-income people & families," she added.

READ MORE: Deaths rise as southern US tallies Hurricane Ida damage

'Niagara Falls level of water'

Ida's remnants maintained a soggy core, then merged with a more traditional storm front and dropped an onslaught of rain on the Interstate 95 corridor, meteorologists said. 

Similar weather has followed hurricanes before, but experts said it was slightly exacerbated by climate change – warmer air holds more rain – and urban settings, where expansive pavement prevents water from seeping into the ground.

The National Hurricane Center had warned since Tuesday of the potential for “significant and life-threatening flash flooding" and moderate and major river flooding in the mid-Atlantic region and New England.

Still, New York Governor Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the storm's strength took them by surprise.

"We did not know that between 8:50 and 9:50 pm (00:50 and 01:50 GMT) last night, that the heavens would literally open up and bring Niagara Falls level of water to the streets of New York,” said Hochul, a Democrat who became governor last week after former Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned.

The storm dumped over 9 inches (23 cm) of rain in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and nearly as much on New York City’s Staten Island.

READ MORE: New Orleans in darkness as Ida weakens, residents take stock of damage

'Sandy had nothing on this'

Wildfires are threatening Lake Tahoe, and Ida struck Louisiana as the fifth-strongest storm to ever hit the US mainland, leaving 1 million people without power, maybe for weeks.

As its remnants hit New York, some highways flooded, garbage bobbed in water rushing down the streets and water cascaded into the city's subway tunnels, trapping at least 17 trains and forcing the cancelation of service throughout the night and early morning. 

Videos online showed riders standing on seats in cars filled with water. All riders were evacuated safely, officials said.

In Elizabeth, New Jersey, near Newark Airport, four people died and 600 were left homeless from rain and river flooding in an apartment complex, Mayor J. Christian Bollwage said.

Neighbours described hearing screaming from the complex at about 11 pm (03:00 GMT) as water flowed down the street, pushing dumpsters and cars around.

“Sandy had nothing on this,” resident Jennifer Vilchez said, referring to 2012′s Superstorm Sandy.

READ MORE: Thousands flee Louisiana as category 4 storm forecast

Record flooding 

Elsewhere in New Jersey, flooding killed two people in Hillsborough, two in Bridgewater, and one in Milford Borough, where authorities found a man's body in a car buried up to its hood in dirt and rocks, authorities said.

The NWS recorded 80 millimeters (3.15 inches) of rain in Central Park in just an hour – beating a record set just last month during Storm Henri.

The ferocious storm also spawned tornadoes, including one that tore off part of a high school roof in suburban Philadelphia and another that ripped apart homes and toppled silos in Mullica Hill, New Jersey, south of Philadelphia.

Record flooding along the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania inundated homes, highways and commercial buildings, even as meteorologists warned that rivers likely won’t crest for a few more days. 

The riverside community of Manayunk remained largely under water.

The Schuyilkill reached levels not seen in over 100 years in Philadelphia, where firefighters were still getting calls about minor building collapses and people stuck in flooded cars on Thursday morning, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said. 

READ MORE: The aftermath of Hurricane Ida in the US

Rescue efforts 

A flash flood warning continued into Thursday in New England, where an on-duty Connecticut state trooper was swept away in his cruiser and later taken to a hospital, state police and local authorities said. 

Authorities used boats to rescue 18 people from a flooded neighbourhood in Plainville, Connecticut, and 15 people – including one who uses a wheelchair – from a flooded complex in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. A road in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, crumbled.

In Frederick County, Maryland, first responders used a boat to rescue 10 children and a driver from a school bus caught in rising flood waters. The county's school superintendent apologised for not dismissing students earlier, The Frederick News-Post reported.

The Atlantic hurricane season is far from over. Larry became a hurricane Thursday morning, forecast to rapidly intensify. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said it’s moving west but remains far from any coast.

READ MORE: Ida forecast to hit US as Category 4 hurricane on Katrina anniversary

Source: TRTWorld and agencies