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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

5 dead in flash flooding in Philadelphia suburbs

Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks about search and rescue following flooding in the state, in Upper Makefield Township, Pa., on Sunday, July 16, 2023.

By Anna Bettsand Elise Young

Fierce thunderstorms, heavy rainfall and flash flooding wreaked havoc across the Northeast over the weekend, killing five people in Pennsylvania, halting flights at major airports in the New York metropolitan area and downing power lines. In one part of Long Island, 5 inches of rain fell in less than two hours.

“We are in a very, very unstable weather condition,” said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, as she warned of the dangers of driving under flash-flooding conditions. “Your car can go from a place of safety to a place of death.”

The worst of the toll was in the suburbs north of Philadelphia, in the area of Washington Crossing — famous as the location where George Washington crossed the Delaware River in 1776. A raging stream of floodwater trapped 11 cars Saturday evening, sweeping three of them away.

Authorities said a family visiting from Charleston, South Carolina, encountered the severe flash flooding along Washington Crossing Road, as they headed to a barbecue.

At a news briefing Sunday, Tim Brewer, fire chief of nearby Upper Makefield Township, in Bucks County, said the family had tried to escape the fierce floodwaters, with the father clutching the 4-year-old son, as the mother and grandmother grabbed the two additional children, who were 9 months and 2 years old.

The father and son made it out safely, he said, but the grandmother, mother and the two children were swept away by the floodwaters.

As of Sunday afternoon, Pennsylvania officials were still searching for the two children, but officials said the mother was among five people confirmed dead. The grandmother survived and was treated at a local hospital.

“We are treating this as a rescue, but we are fairly certain we are in recovery mode at this time,” Brewer said of the missing children.

He said an estimated 6 to 7 inches of rain fell in less than 45 minutes. “In my 44 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “When the water came up, it came up very swiftly.”

Eli Weissman, 65, said he and his 22-year-old daughter were trapped in the same deadly flash flood at Washington Crossing.

They were both on board his BMW motorcycle driving home when it suddenly started raining, he said.

“We were only 5 miles from my house, so we figured we’d head on home instead of waiting it out,” Weissman said. The rain began to pick up, as cars in front of them started stopping, he said.

“Then this water just came rushing down the road,” Weissman said. “It was like a dam burst or something. It was just nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

He said he and his daughter were thrown off the bike and into the water, which had swiftly risen to around 8 feet deep.

“We were floating down and trying to survive the rapids, you know, feet first, clinging to trees, clinging to vines, anything we could cling to,” Weissman said. “It was so fast and so deep.”

Around them, cars were deserted and some of them were overturned. At one point, Weissman said, he “saw a mother get out of her car with an infant and walk away from the car.” He said that he believed that they were members of the family from Charleston, although he was not certain.

The water began to recede after 15 minutes or so, he said, and he and his daughter were finally able to stand again. They carefully made their way to the road and back up to drier land, where his son came to pick them up.

“I’ve seen flooded roads and I’ve seen rapid water but never like this,” he said.

Collin Mortensen, 17, of Upper Makefield Township, said he was making a food run to Colonial Market on Saturday evening when the storm started to peak.

Driving a Ford Expedition, he said, he passed a car that had slid off the road and down a hill, its front axle broken and a wheel twisted. Then he encountered the flooded road.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through,” Mortensen said in an interview at the Shell gasoline station where he was working Sunday afternoon. When he left the market, he said, emergency crews were blocking off a main intersection, as a river of water headed down a hill and east through the village, toward the river.

Overall, officials said, eight people were rescued in cars in Bucks County, where Washington Crossing is located, and two were rescued from a creek.

Saturday’s flash flooding in Pennsylvania was followed Sunday by deluges across the Northeast, with flash-flood warnings in effect in parts of Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Maine and neighboring states. An estimated 5 inches of rain fell in less than two hours on the east end of Long Island.

Thunderstorms caused flight disruptions at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and Kennedy International Airport in New York. In Maryland, officials said that “life-threatening flash flooding” was expected.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency Sunday afternoon. “Throughout the state, we have seen heavy rainfalls resulting in hazardous conditions, and we urge residents to remain vigilant around flooded roadways and downed trees and power lines,” he said in a statement.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said he was “concerned about some additional bad weather coming this evening,” and he urged Bucks County residents to remain alert and to avoid flood-hazard areas.

By late afternoon, emergency workers had reopened most of the roads in Bucks County but continued to block the area where they were searching for the missing children. Although most waterways had receded, their levels remained higher than usual, and some roadside culverts were still swollen with swiftly running water.

Michael Adler, a lawyer who lives in Holland, Pennsylvania, said it was still raining heavily Sunday afternoon.

“We’re getting all these alerts on our phones,” he said. “Where we are right now, we’re not near creeks, but I know that there are lots of creeks and underground creeks in this area, so everybody’s a little concerned.”

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