Henri weakened slightly to a tropical storm early Sunday but still packed wind gusts of up to 75 mph in some areas as it was slated to pummel a long stretch of northeastern coastline, where 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 New York’s Hamptons.
The storm had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 kph) in an 8 a.m. EDT update from the U.S. National Hurricane Center, just shy of hurricane status. The highest winds measured were 75 mph (121 kph) off the coast of Rhode Island.
Experts warned that the storm's biggest threat likely won't come from wind but from storm surge and inland flooding, caused by what are expected to be heavy and sustained rains.
In preparation for the storm, officials in Providence, Rhode Island, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, closed giant hurricane barriers that were built in the 1960s, after devastating storms in 1938 and 1954.
Massachusetts’ Steamship Authority canceled ferry service between the mainland and the popular vacation islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket until at least noon Sunday 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.
The first thunderstorms bringing what could be up to half a foot (15 centimeters) of rain arrived late 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 Sunday morning. Rising tide threatened to produce dangerous storm surge.
People in the projected path spent Saturday scrambling to stock up on groceries and gasoline. Those close to the coast boarded up windows and, in some cases, evacuated.
Residents and visitors on Fire Island, a narrow strip of sandy villages barely above sea level off Long Island’s southern coast, were urged to evacuate. The last boats out left before 11 p.m. Saturday and officials warned there might be no way to reach people left behind.
The evacuation threw a wrench into Kristen Pavese’s planned Fire Island bachelorette party. The group of 10 had intended to celebrate Saturday night, but ended up leaving on the ferry just a day after arriving. They had planned to stay until Monday.
“I’m upset about it, but it’s the weather. It’s nothing I can control,” said Pavese, a Long Island resident. “I’ve been going to Fire Island for a long time, so I’m sort of familiar with this happening.”
Approaching severe weather Saturday night 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. But officials asked concertgoers to leave the park during Barry Manilow’s set amid the threat of lightning.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, set to leave office Monday after resigning over a sexual harassment scandal, emerged Saturday to plead with New York residents to make last-minute preparations.
Gov. Ned Lamont warned Connecticut residents they should prepare to “shelter in place” from Sunday afternoon through at least Monday morning as the state braces for the first possible direct hit from a hurricane in decades. Rhode Island Gov. 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.”
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.
The White House said President Joe Biden discussed preparations with northeastern governors and that New York Lt. Gov. 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 its exact landfall, broad impacts were expected across a large swath of the Northeast, extending inland to Hartford, Connecticut, and Albany, New York, and eastward to Cape Cod, which is teeming with tens of thousands of summer tourists.
Storm surge between 3 and 5 feet (1 to 1.5 meters) was possible in much of Long Island Sound all the way to Chatham, Massachusetts, and slightly less on Long Island's Atlantic coast, the hurricane center said. Flash flooding was possible in inland areas already saturated by recent rain.
Hill reported from Albany, New York. Associated Press writers William J. Kole in Warwick, Rhode Island, Mallika Sen and Larry Neumeister in New York, Mike Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, and Mark Pratt in Waltham, Massachusetts, contributed to this report.