Henri Weakens to Tropical Storm Ahead of Northeast Landfall

(AP) -
Waves hit the shore at Ponquogue Beach as Hurricane Henri, now downgraded to a tropical storm, nears the coast in Long Island, New York, Sunday morning. (Reuters/Caitlin Ochs)

Henri weakened slightly to a tropical storm early Sunday 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 top winds of 70 mph (110 kph) in a 7 a.m. update from the U.S. National Hurricane Center, just shy of hurricane status.

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.

A Southampton town police officer closes a flooded road as Hurricane Henri, now downgraded to a tropical storm, approaches Long Island, Sunday morning. (Reuters/Caitlin Ochs)

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.

Signs on the highway warn commuters not to travel on Sunday as Hurricane Henri approaches in Long Island, Aug. 21. (REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, set to leave office Monday after resigning, emerged Saturday to plead with New York residents to make last-minute preparations, warning that heavy rain, wind and storm surge from Henri could be as devastating as Superstorm Sandy back in 2012.

“We have short notice,” Cuomo said in one of his final forays before media cameras, a setting that shot him to fame during the worst of the pandemic last year.

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.