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Death toll rises to 45 in Eastern US after flash floods batter region

At least 45 people died in six states in the Eastern US after the remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped record-breaking rainfall that caused flash floods across the region late on Wednesday.

New Jersey governor Phil Murphy said at least 23 people had perished in his state, most of them after becoming trapped in cars that were “overtaken by the water”. Four bodies were also found at an apartment complex in the port city of Elizabeth.

Twelve of the dead were in New York City. Eleven of them died in flooded basements and another in a car, the police said. Three others died in nearby suburban Westchester County.

A sergeant for the Connecticut State Police also died after floodwaters swept away his cruiser. Authorities in Pennsylvania reported five fatalities, including one person killed by a falling tree while deaths were also reported in Maryland and Virginia.

New York City’s main transport systems were pummeled by the storm, with floods forcing the subway to grind to a halt over night, stranding passengers on trains under ground, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s acting boss Janno Lieber told CNN.

The MTA urged passengers to avoid unnecessary travel “until further notice” as it struggled to get the system back to full capacity. Service was still “extremely limited” on Thursday afternoon.

The storm’s ability to cripple the nation’s most densely populated area in a matter of hours showed how New York’s infrastructure remains ill-prepared for the stronger, wetter storms associated with climate change.

Images of water rising to the windows of parked cars, gushing down the stairwells of subway stations, and spilling into the basements of homes across the New York metropolitan area were widely shared on social media.

A travel advisory asking non-emergency vehicles to stay off the roads remained in effect on Thursday.

“What we have to recognise is the suddenness, the brutality of storms now,” said Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor. “It is different . . . This is the biggest wake-up call we could ever get. We’re going to do a lot of things differently and quickly.”

The flash flood emergency for all five New York boroughs was the first ever issued by the National Weather Service, officials said. The storm also broke the record for the most rainfall observed in Central Park in a single hour, with 3.15 inches falling. The previous record was set less than two weeks ago by Tropical Storm Henri.

President Joe Biden said he had spoken with the governors of New York and New Jersey for updates on the flooding and offered federal help to the rescue and clean-up efforts.

“There’s a lot of damage, and I made clear to the governors that my team at the Federal Emergency Management Agency is on the ground and ready to provide all assistance that’s needed,” Biden said.

Newark Liberty International Airport said it had experienced “severe flooding,” cancelled more than 300 flights, and briefly evacuated an air traffic control tower because of strong winds.

Amtrak suspended all of its rail service between Boston and Washington on Thursday.

Tennis matches at the US Open tournament in Queens were interrupted, as heavy rain breached Louis Armstrong Stadium’s retractable roof. Close to 200,000 utility customers lost power because of the storm, while homes were levelled by a tornado that touched down in Mullica Hill, New Jersey.

Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane on Sunday, the strongest storm to strike the area since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Entergy, Louisiana’s largest electric utility, has restored some service but hundreds of thousands of customers remained in the dark and those in the worst-hit areas face weeks without power.

The insurance hit from Ida is expected to be substantial. Fitch Ratings predicted earlier this week that the overall cost to insurers and reinsurers could be between $15bn and $25bn, likely exceeding the impact of this year’s winter storm Uri, which had knocked out Texas’s electric grid, but still well below the $65bn hit from Katrina.

Boston-based catastrophe modelling firm Karen Clark & Company published a “flash estimate” of $18bn of claims from Ida, including $40m in the Caribbean and the rest in wind and storm-related losses in the US.

“It will take many months or longer for the financial view of this event to fully develop,” insurance broker Aon said on Monday. The uninsured costs will also be significant, it added, including damage to infrastructure as well as properties without flood cover.

The insurance industry is already reeling after the worst start to the year for natural catastrophes in a decade, as urban development and climate change effects combined to deal a $40bn first-half blow from events such as wildfires and winter storms.

Additional reporting by Justin Jacobs in Houston

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